The Myth of the Wasted Vote

by Jeffry R. Fisher

In American partisan elections, most people feel compelled to vote for either a Democrat or a Republican because they feel that they should choose between front runners, which status is conferred upon D's and R's by historical inertia. People feel it, and some sometimes even say it, that a vote for an independent or minor party candidate is a wasted vote.

I aim to challenge that assertion.

Bandwagon Effect

But first, I should acknowledge the pressure to conform. By analyzing its components I can begin to poke at escape routes. As explained above and in Escaping from the Two-Party System, American voters feel trapped into voting for candidates they may not like in order to defeat others they like even less. There are several forces at work.

Fear Factor

The compulsion to choose between front-runners magnified when one perceives either of the front-runners to be absolutely detestable. Notice how our major party candidates spend so much of their energy convincing us to detest them. Notice how Republican social planks seem to be designed to drive civil libertarians reluctantly into the waiting arms of Democrats while Democratic economic intervention seems to be designed to drive free market libertarians reluctantly into the waiting arms of Republicans.

In this manner, the two major parties actually support one another more than they combat one another. Think about it; if both front-runners were likable, Americans might feel safe voting for independents.

This hints at one reason to vote independently: Supporting your lesser evil will drive others to support your greater evil, both now and in the future. Therefore, a vote for the lesser of two evils may in fact be worse than a wasted vote; it might actually be counterproductive.

Electoral Straight-jacket

Another force contributing to the bandwagon effect is our lame electoral system. The ballot may have three or more candidates for an office, but the apparent openness is a sham as long as we have only one vote to cast among them.

Since we want to influence the outcome, our first thought is to differentiate between the two perceived front-runners If we are not allowed to say anything more, then we have nothing left to give support to outsiders, which means that we can't bring them into contention. Not only that, but we know that other voters are similarly limited, magnifying the influence of the limitation.

This is the crux of "snowball" or "bandwagon" effect: When an early perception reinforces itself, leading to polarization out of all proportion to actual approval ratings, then democracy is subverted. That goes triple when the early perception is based purely on previous elections, leading to a virtually unbreakable cycle.

We deserve better election methods. In the mean time, know that our much vaunted "democracy" has been deliberately hamstrung by two co-dependent factions that don't want us to have any other real choices. We are being herded like cattle by entrenched powers.

Institutionalized Major Parties

Also contributing to entrenchment is our primary system that spends weeks or months (and millions of your tax dollars) celebrating the Democrats' and Republicans' recruitment process while saving them from the vote splitting that might bring other factions to office. Without the primary scheme that fortifies major party power, we would need an intelligent system like Approval Voting. However, that would also open the door to outsiders, and opposing such is about the only thing on which the D's and R's can agree.

Voting for Losers

Minor party and independent candidates aren't the only losers in elections. Republicans and Democrats lose to each other all of the time anyway, often quite predictably. If a voting for a loser is wasting a vote, then what do you call voting for a loser that you don't even like? Even worse, what if you vote for a loser you didn't even like, but your vote convinces others to support your greater evils? Who's vote is wasted now?

Voting for Winners

More subtle is the downside of winning. What if you are successful in electing the lesser of two evils? Sure, you avoid the greater evil for a few years, but you cause even more good-natured people to reluctantly support your version of greater evil in the future, and you are still stuck with lesser evil in the present. You are perpetuating a vicious cycle that has you suffering greater evil about half the time for all of eternity.

Take the road less traveled. Vote for liberty. Be willing to suffer "greater" evil in the near term in order to have your first real shot at GOOD someday. Then we can overturn the works of both the lesser and the greater evil.

Staying Home

Now there's the gold standard of wasted votes: The vote not cast. If US statistics are to be believed, there are enough uncast votes in each general election to out poll the D's and R's combined. That's not just enough to win; it's enough to put the Libertarians and Greens into first and second place, with the Democrats and Republicans relegated to "wasted vote" territory.

Escape Routes

Pre-election Polling

The first step, which costs nothing, is to never tell pollsters the truth about your intention to vote for a major party candidate. You don't owe pollsters anything, so use them to influence outcomes rather than allowing them to use you.

Tactically, whether you really like a major party's candidate or not, you scare others to vote for his/her opposite whenever you show your support. Therefore, if you really do like an independent or minor party candidate, then give the pollsters that name, even if you intend to vote strategically for a D or an R. If you actually like your major party candidate, then tell the pollsters you intend to vote for his/her opposite, scaring swing voters into voting.

Winning Isn't Everything

Demonstrating support for a minor party can increase their access to money, which increases the distribution of their message. Visiting painful losses upon a major party can drive that party to modify its platform, giving more weight to the issues espoused by nearby minor parties to which votes leaked.

Historical Inertia

Our actual votes on election day have long term effects beyond deciding immediate contests. In fact, the short term influence over today's election may be far less important than overturning the two party system altogether. Therefore, voting independent may be the ultimate strategic vote. Lesser or not, voting for any evil may be the ultimate waste.

Copyright 2003-2004 by Jeff Fisher: Permission is granted to reproduce this article in whole, but only in combination with attribution, the original title, the original URL, and this copyright notice.

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