Crawl Across the Ocean

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Wasted Votes

During the typical campaign, I hear a lot of people say something like, "I'm going to vote for Person/Party X. I considered voting for person/party Y but I didn't want to waste my vote." For a typical specimen of this species, see this recent post over at Tart Cider,
"A Conservative vote in Parkdale-High Park is pretty much wasted, as far as I can see, since it squanders a real opportunity to influence the balance of power in the House of Commons."

So here's the question for anyone who is going to worry about casting a wasted vote this time around. What exactly do you mean by that?

Is it:

a) Your vote won't influence the outcome of the election
b) Your vote won't be cast for the eventual winner in your riding
c) Your vote won't be cast for either the eventual winner in your riding or a strong contender
d) Your vote will go to a party which isn't either in power or the official opposition
e) You don't expect the vote in your riding to be close
f) You plan to consider your options carefully the night before the election, drink heavily and show up wasted at the polls the next day

If it's a), I have bad news for you. I checked the last two federal elections and not a single race was decided by one vote. So every vote cast was wasted by this criteria. If this is your rule, you may as well stay home, since the odds of your vote actually affecting the outcome are so small that it's really not worth your while.

If it's b) then I am genuinely mystified. Say candidate Dockwell Stay is running in your riding and he was won by over 10,000 votes in the last 8 elections and he wins again by 15,000 votes this time. Do you somehow feel that your vote ensuring his margin was 15,001 instead of 15,000 was less wasted than if you had voted for someone else and the margin was only 14,999?

If its c) then I have to ask, given that we know from a) that your vote isn't going o affect the actual outcome, what benefit of less waste do you get from voting for one of the two contenders?

Say the final vote in your riding is: Ms. NDP 14,000, Mr. Liberal 13,750, Joe Conservative 6,000, Dr. Green 3,500.

Does knowing that you cast your vote for the NDP, thus preventing the results from being: Ms. NDP 13,999, Mr. Liberal 13,750, Joe Conservative 6,001, Dr. Green 3,500 mean that your vote wasn't wasted? Are we just back to a) and worrying about that vanishingly small chance of you casting the decided vote?

d) is like c) only even less rational. Would the final national seat standings affect how you vote in the situation I just described. Does it mean that a Green vote is wasted but a vote for the NDP, Libs or Conservatives isn't, even though your vote has no impact on the final seat totals?

As for e), does knowing the result ahead of time (in all likelihood) mean that your vote is wasted? But at the same time you know that (in all likelihood) your vote won't affect the outcome anyway, but you don't consider it a waste for that reason?

If its f) then, well, I can't argue with that one. Just don't drive to the polling booth.

So what's my point? My point is that the only criteria under which it makes sense to consider a vote wasted is a criteria under which pretty much every vote ever cast is wasted. So choosing who to vote for based on worries about wasting your vote is irrational and you are better off voting on principle.

Of course, if your objective is to influence how other people vote, then it might make perfect sense to talk about wasted votes.


  • Voting is irrational, as you've just shown. Taking the time out of your day to go vote is, technically, a waste of time unless you cast the deciding ballot in a one-vote-difference race.

    Nothing new to you Declan, but the whole thing is like a prisoner's dilemma. Voting doesn't make sense for any one of us individually (from a purely rational view), but it does make sense for all of us if we collectively agree that voting is a duty we should all carry out. It's a moral obligation.

    By Blogger Andrew Spicer, at 8:10 AM  

  • Yes, you're right of course, it's a classic prisoner's dilemma.

    Individually irrational to vote, collectively rational. Morality as the glue holding things together.

    Democracy might never work in a society where everyone was an economist!

    By Blogger Declan, at 8:50 AM  

  • Hell with that noise - it's just fun to do! You're not allowed to argue politics unless you voted, and you'd be amazed how easily a conversation can start. Here's how mine usually begin:

    Me: I voted for X.
    Other: What?! Why'd you vote for X?
    Me: Because I actually thought about it.

    And away we go!

    By Blogger Thursday, at 10:31 PM  

  • I've often thought that voting made less of a difference than being polled a few days or weeks before an election. If I'm voting in a riding of (say) 30,000 voters, then I hold 1/30,000 of the power. But if I am polled a few days before the election, then I am influencing 30,000 voters who will decide whether or not to vote - as well as who to vote for - based on considerations like the ones you listed.

    By Blogger Moebius Stripper, at 10:36 PM  

  • I'm not sure I followed you here.

    When you say, " So choosing who to vote for based on worries about wasting your vote is irrational and you are better off voting on principle" are you suggesting that principle is based on agreeing with the party's principle?

    Does your definition of principle include voting for the party most likely (in a close race) to beat a party that has principles you dislike.

    Obviously this is a really important question for the NDP to get their arms around because starting the first week in January the Liberal machine will be looking to scare everyone who moved to the NDP back into the fold.

    By Blogger KevinG, at 11:23 PM  

  • i was reading this post thinking "oh dammit, not some rant on utility" since im so over it, but the zinger at the end made it worthwhile.

    By Blogger ainge lotusland, at 5:40 AM  

  • also, thursday, andrew spicer, and everyone else who hasnt mentioned the following:

    not voting (for conscientious rather than utility/rational-based motivations) is also an option.

    By Blogger ainge lotusland, at 5:43 AM  

  • Thursday - "Because I actually thought about it."


    MS - So what's you're saying is strategic voting may not make sense but strategic poll answering might? i.e. Liberal supporter pretends she is going to vote Conservative hoping to scare NDP voters into voting Liberal, and so on...

    Ainge - I think that in the vast majority of cases not voting as some kind of statement is just a cop-out and if people really want to make a statement they should show up and spoil (or decline) the ballot. Half the population choosing to stay home can be, and is, ignored, half spoiling the ballot will cause change.

    Of course, if your objective is to destroy democracy via apathy then not voting is the logical choice.

    Kevin - my point is that even if your riding looks close on paper, the odds of you personally affecting the outcome are tiny, so voting based on the premise that you might affect the outcome is pointless.

    You could vote Liberal to try and prevent the Conservatives from winning your riding but all that is going to happen is that the Liberal loses by 326 instead of 327 or wins by 284 instead of 283.

    Given the odds, you might as well take the satisfaction in knowing that you voted for what you thought was the best candidate. Or, alternatively, that your vote made the most optimal one vote shift in the final results.

    As an example of why I added that last sentence, consider my earlier posts about the municipal election and the James/Jim controversy. I might vote for someone, not because I thought they were the best candidate but because I thought that some people intending to vote for that person might have been confused (deliberately by their opponents) into voting for the wrong candidate, so I might cast my vote as an attempt to make the final total more accurately reflect voter's true intentions.

    By Blogger Declan, at 10:41 AM  

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