origin of ‘first past the post’ (as applied to a voting system)

Of Australian and New-Zealand origin, the phrase first past the post designates an electoral system in which a candidate may be elected by a simple majority rather than an absolute majority.

The allusion is to horse racing, in which a horse wins a race by being the first to pass the finishing post.

The horse-racing phrase first past the post was used for example in The Daily Post (Hobart, Tasmania) of Thursday 16th June 1910—Edward VII, King of Great Britain and Ireland, died on 6th May 1910, and was succeeded by George V:

In connection with the death of the King a singular coincidence has been noted. On Friday afternoon his Majesty’s horse, Witch of the Air, won the Kempton Spring Plate at a moment when its Royal owner lay on the brink of death in London. As events turned out, his Majesty had raced successfully on his dying day. […] Witch of the Air carried King Edward’s colors for the first time past the post early in the day and, as his Majesty did not lose consciousness until many hours later, he heard that the popular purple and gold had been carried to victory amid ringing cheers.
[…] Our present Monarch intends to maintain the Royal stable on the same basis as before. That King George V will actively participate in the sport of racing during the present season is, of course, unthinkable; but there is not the least reason in life to doubt that in the summer of 1911 we shall once more see the “purple” borne first past the post amidst the thunderous cheering that always has, and always will, greet a royal victory.

The allusion to horse racing in politics is illustrated by the metaphorical use of both preliminary canter and first past the post in the speech that Ernest Alfred Roberts (1868-1913), Labor member of the House of Representatives, delivered at a Labor meeting on Sunday 6th August 1911—as reported the following day by The Daily Herald (Adelaide, South Australia); the Labor politician and trade unionist James Jelley (1873-1954) had just been defeated in a by-election:

Representative Roberts said that […] the result of yesterday’s vote showed that there were not yet sufficient people with a grasp of things political. They had not yet sufficiently educated themselves. Mr. Jelley had had his preliminary canter. He had showed up very well. Their chance would come again, and then he would be first past the post. (Hear, hear.) Someone would win the seat for the people. Someone would come out and not because of himself but because of his policy he would carry the colors first past the post.

The earliest instance that I have found of first past the post used in reference to a voting system in which a candidate with a simple majority wins is from The Herald (Melbourne, Victoria) of Wednesday 29th January 1913:

ELECTORAL SYSTEMS
MR O’MALLEY’S VIEW
FIRST PAST THE POST.”

“I like the system of electing the first man past the post, regardless of majorities or minorities,” declared Mr King O’Malley, the Minister for Home Affairs, this afternoon, when references by the Premier of Victoria, Mr Watt, to the Tasmanian and Victorian electoral systems were brought under his notice.
“These systems that strive after perfection,” added the Minister, “end in imperfection. I like the Federal system. Like Mr Watt, however, I have always been strong for elective Ministries.”

The phrase first past the post refers to a candidate winning with a simple majority in the following paragraph about a Labor Party election rally, published in The Westralian Worker (Perth, Western Australia) of Friday 11th April 1913:

On Sunday afternoon (writes a correspondent) O’Loghlen addressed the electors at Argyle, and in the course of a speech lasting an hour and three-quarters touched upon pretty well all the main issues involved in the Federal elections. Mr. Watson, of the fine “Swanto” orchard, presided, and at the close of O’Loghlen’s speech called for a vote of thanks to the candidate, and this, on the motion of Mr. Parke, was given with enthusiasm. Only that nobody hereabout ever bets, especially on Sundays or in connection with election contests, I should certainly be able to record that “the odds” on the youngster being first past the post on May 31 are approaching “tightness” in these parts at least.

The earliest occurrence of system of first past the post that I have found is from The Worker (Wagga, New South Wales) of Thursday 23rd October 1913:

NEW ZEALAND NOTES.
LEGISLATIVE COUNCIL REFORM.

One of the main planks of the Massey1 Party, when, as the Opposition, it contested the last general elections against the Liberal Government, was Legislative Council Reform.
On the hustings its candidates complained that the Council was nothing short of a haven for the rejects and supports of the Seddon2-Ward3 regime, and everywhere the Masseyites proclaimed their intention of altering the constitution of the Council in the event of victory at the polls.
There has been some question as to the sincerity of the Massey Government over the matter now that it has attained the Treasury Benches. It has attempted to carry out its proposals for reform of the Council, but has rigidly refrained from making any definite pronouncement on the question of electoral reform for the Lower Chamber.
Briefly put, the Government’s Bill for Council Reform proposed that the Council should consist of a membership of 40 Councillors elected by proportional represenation [sic]. There were to be ten electorates in each Island, each returning two members.
The Bill was introduced in the Council some weeks back, and after a good deal of delay and sparring, it received its quietus by an adverse vote of 14 to 13 in the Council on October 1.
The vote was taken on an amended clause of the Bill as follows:—
The members of the Council so to be elected shall be elected by the votes of those of the inhabitants of New Zealand who are entitled to vote at an election of a member of the House of Representatives.
There were two or three absentees, but a full House would have only meant an increased adverse majority.
No vote was taken on the question of proportional representation. If it had been made the issue, perhaps the vote against the Bill would have been heavier. Amongst the Councillors there is a feeling that some alteration in the constitution of the Council is necessary, but the principle of direct election by the people on proportional representation, is supported by only a minority of the sitting members of the Council in New Zealand.
Of the 39 members, of the present Council, 15 or 20 retire at the end of the year. The Massey Government may wait till then before filling the vacancies, or it may in the meantime appoint 10 other Councillors, and force the Bill through the Council next session.
One result of the vote will be a further discussion on electoral reform in the House. The Massey Government promises the repeal of the second ballot before next elections, but will not commit itself to the full system of proportional representation for the House. It would like, for tactical and election purposes, to confine its electoral reform to only the repeal of the second ballot, but having proposed proportional representation for one chamber, in the event of any alteration of the present electoral law, it may be forced to legislate for the application of the principle in election of members of the House of Representatives. A possible compromise it may make, is to submit a scheme of electoral reform, based on an elective Council returned under a system of proportional representation, with the extension of that principle to city electorates in the House, and the abolition altogether of the second ballot. For the country and rural electorates the old system of first past the post would be then reverted to.

1 William Massey (1856-1925), Prime Minister of New Zealand from 1912 to 1925, was the founding leader of the Reform Party from 1909 until his death.
2 Richard Seddon (1845-1906), Prime Minister of New Zealand from 1893 until his death in office, was the leader of the Liberal Party from 1893 until his death.
3 Joseph Ward (1856-1930), Prime Minister of New Zealand from 1906 to 1912 and from 1928 to 1930, was the leader of the Liberal Party from 1906 to 1912 and from 1913 to 1919.

The earliest instances that I have found of first past the post used attributively are from The Daily Telegraph (Sydney, New South Wales) of Wednesday 13th May 1914:

DOUBLE-VOICED DEMOS.
DOES NEW ZEALAND NEED A “SENATE.”
PROPORTIONAL SYSTEM FOR THE “LORDS.”
(FROM OUR CORRESPONDENT.)

WELLINGTON, May 5.—The Massey (Reform) Government seems to be a bit tangled up over its proposals for bi-cameral and voting reform. When it came into office it at once commenced a double attack on the nominated Legislative Council and the election of the House of Representatives by second ballot. It pledged itself clearly enough to substitute another method of election for the second ballot, and it promised an elective Legislative Council. Thus it undertook radical reforms in connection with both Chambers.
First of all, Mr. Massey introduced his reformed Legislative Council. He based it on large electorates, and in his 1912 Bill fell into the Commonwealth Senate blunder of not proportioning representation to population. In the 1913 Bill that mistake was rectified, and the Legislative Council was based on four electorates, with provision for one-adult-one-vote and one-vote-one-value. In another way the Council was made more up-to-date than the Senate, for it was to be elected by proportional representation. In this form the bill is due to appear again next session.
But, in the meanwhile, what of the House? If proportional representation is as democratic as its supporters claim, there is a danger that the “popular Chamber” will have its nose put out of joint. It is not only threatened with a fully elective rival, but one more scientifically elected. When the difficulties of the dual elective position began to be realised the suggestion was made that proportional voting should be applied to the election of both Chambers. But that system is not suitable to single electorates, and to create large electorates would simply mean duplicating the Council in all essential particulars. For a while the Government thought of grouping the single electorates in the four chief cities, and electing the House partly on a proportional basis. But that hybrid idea appears to have been dropped.
The necessity for getting rid of the second ballot—by means of which Labor won two more seats last year—forced the Government to action. But it did not provide a substitute for the second ballot, except to the extent that, by simply repealing that voting device, it restored the old first-past-the-post system. Now Mr. Massey states that next session he will give the House an opportunity to substitute some voting device for the second ballot, but he does not commit the Government to carrying such a substitute. As far as the Government’s present altitude is concerned, there is nothing to prevent the general election, due in November or December, from being fought on the first-past-the-post method. The other day Mr. Massey said he was going to continue that method “until something better can be devised.” His political opponents allege breach of faith, and impute to Reform a desire to profit by Liberal-Labor vote-splitting.

Incidentally, the phrase first past the post has also been used in the sense of a person, or a thing, that is the best of their, or of its, kind. Here are two examples:

1: In an advertisement from the section Amusements of the Kalgoorlie Miner (Kalgoorlie, Western Australia) of Friday 1st September 1911:

TOWN HALL, KALGOORLIE.
Sole Lessee and Direction  . .  GEORGE MARLOW, LTD.
AN EASY FIRST PAST THE POST OF POPULARITY.
THE SECOND OF OUR IRRESISTIBLE GIGANTIC SUCCESSES.
Our Dramas Magnetise, Captivate and Thoroughly Entertain.
ONLY TO-NIGHT.       THE WOMAN PAYS       ONLY TO-NIGHT.

'first past the post' - Kalgoorlie Miner (Kalgoorlie, Western Australia) - 1 September 1911

2: In an advertisement for Boan Bros.’ Mammoth New Emporium, published in The West Australian (Perth, Western Australia) of Friday 31st October 1913:

JUVENILE CLOTHING

The SCHOOLS’ DEMONSTRATION during the coming week is engaging the attention of parents to suitably dress the little folk.
BOAN BROS. always play the leading part in this great ANNUAL EVENT, for in the matter of supplying the correct styles at the lowest prices they are easily “First past the post.”

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