Electoral systems and the futility of ‘tactical’ voting

Costas Panayotakis recently exposed the fiction in the ‘Every Vote Counts’ thesis. Here, he explores the implications of that fiction for different electoral systems, notably those based on proportional representation and First Past the Post. In so doing, he reveals the futility of tactical voting

My recent blog for The Loop challenged the ‘Every Vote Counts’ thesis. I showed that no individual can realistically expect their vote to determine the winner of elections involving a sizeable electorate. This means that democratic participation depends on a sense of civic duty rather than on individual interest. But what are the implications for different electoral systems, such as proportional representation (PR) and First Past the Post (FPTP)?

PR and political stability

Proportional representation systems vary depending on the extent to which they apportion legislative seats in accordance with the popular vote. In a ‘pure’ PR system, a party’s legislative seats would exactly reflect the electoral outcome. One argument against this system is that it can lead to political instability. In particular, pure PR systems make it harder to form a stable government. This is because a legislative majority requires the winner to receive more than 50% of the votes. Since no party usually crosses this threshold, coalition governments become necessary. A coalition may take months to form because its partners must agree on a government programme. Moreover, whenever faced with contentious issues, the government could lose its legislative majority. This would necessitate either the formation of a new coalition government, or early elections.

Dominant political parties often address this problem by watering down proportional representation. They do so through devices allowing the winner to gain a legislative majority even without an absolute majority of the popular vote. Adopting such a system, however, violates citizen equality, making it disproportionately hard for supporters of smaller parties to see their political views represented.

watered-down PR systems undemocratically privilege political stability over citizen equality

Thus, watered-down PR systems undemocratically privilege political stability over citizen equality. A pure PR system, however, is consistent with citizen equality, allowing citizens democratically to decide on the importance of political stability. Indeed, in such a system, citizens who prioritise political stability can vote not for the political party that most accurately reflects their political views but rather for the party with the best chance of receiving 50% of the vote.

Electoral systems and ‘wasted’ votes

Watered-down PR and FPTP systems often prompt claims that to vote for a small party is to ‘waste’ one’s vote. The assumption behind this claim is that the point of voting is to elect a government. Voting for a smaller party, therefore, equates to not voting at all, since the vote will not contribute to the party of choice forming a government.

Sometimes, supporters of the major parties even assert that a vote for a smaller party is effectively a vote for the major party on the opposite side. When GW Bush was still President, a union activist and progressive friend of mine advised me:

a vote for the Greens is a vote for Bush

The US uses a FPTP electoral system. My friend thus reasoned that voting for the Green Party instead of the Democrats made it more likely that the Republicans would outpoll the Democrats. Needless to say, this argument also applies to watered-down PR systems.

Tactical voting: a fool's errand

From the point of view of the individual voter, however, these arguments are very problematic. In any election with a sizeable electorate, the chance that any one vote will determine the winner is infinitesimally small. The best example the ‘Every Vote Counts’ thesis supporters come up with in the US is the 2000 presidential election. George W Bush beat Al Gore by carrying the state of Florida with a margin of 537 votes. Even in this most paradigmatically close election, therefore, it's simply not true that one vote could have changed the winner.

In any election with a sizeable electorate, the chance that any one vote will determine the winner is infinitesimally small

This reality makes any attempt by an individual to vote tactically, rather than on principle, a fool’s errand. It is true that if all Green supporters had voted for Gore, not Bush, in 2000, Gore would have won. However, it is not true that if one of those voters had switched their vote, the winner would have changed.

Voting for values and priorities

In this sense, it is more rational for individuals to see their vote as an expression of their values and priorities than the means through which they can select their government. This conclusion favours small parties because it relieves voters’ sense that voting for a small party could cause the major party closest to their values to lose the election.

Note, however, that basing one’s vote on personal values rather than tactical considerations will not necessarily lead citizens unrepresented by the major parties to vote for smaller ones. In the 2000 presidential election, no individual Green voter could have changed the result. But Green Presidential candidate Ralph Nader may have changed the outcome by running in Florida and receiving nearly 100,000 votes. It's conceivable that in Nader's absence, enough Nader supporters would have voted for Gore to allow him to prevail.

Given this, a vote based on principle doesn't necessarily mean that a voter to the left of the Democrats would always vote Green. Nor would they necessarily vote for another small party on the left of the political spectrum. Instead, such a voter could choose not to vote. By so doing, they could express their disapproval of a small party's choice to increase the likelihood of a Republican victory by potentially diverting votes from the Democrats.

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Costas Panayotakis
Costas Panayotakis
Professor of Sociology, New York City College of Technology (City University of New York)
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