Rethinking Strategic Voting

Posted on August 3, 2015


It’s been forever since I’ve updated this blog. There’s a simple reason for that: I’ve been working on a PhD. If you’re curious as to what my thoughts have been in the meantime, feel free to go have a look at my other blog, which has been updated regularly. But now, the writ has dropped, and we’re once again in the midst of a Canadian federal election. And since the last one was so much fun, it’s time to once again start blogging the election.

Last time around,, I came out pretty strongly in favour of strategic voting. Today, I’m going to completely and unabashedly flip flop on that stance. That’s because I’ve realized that if you assume all politicians are shrewd electoral calculator, then strategic voting only makes sense in the short-term. In this post, I’m going to demonstrate why that’s the case. It’s going to get a bit theoretical, but I promise that I’ll finish by talking about actual politicians who are running in an actual Canadian election scheduled for October 19 of this year. So bear with me.

Imagine all potential political policies can be plotted on a line from awesome to horrible.

Obviously we want our government’s policies to be as close to the “awesome” side of the line as possible. The problem is that we live in a democracy, and real people’s policy preferences actually fall all over the line. That means that there will be people who prefer awesome policies, and others who prefer horrible policies. Let’s call them the awesome voters and the horrible voters, respectively. The horrible voters, by the way, aren’t necessarily horrible people. They might just be saddled with horrible information. These things are complicated.

So now let’s say we have three candidates to vote for. Candidate A is awesome, and supports all the awesome policies, but, unfortunately, doesn’t typically get enough votes to win an election. Candidate B is kind of in the middle: She supports some good policies, but also supports some horrible ones. And Candidate C is the absolute worst, and wants to make the country as horrible as she can.

Now let’s assume that that Candidate A is in close competition with Candidate C, and both of them get more votes than politician 1. In that case, who should we vote for if we want to the country to come out of the election in decent shape? We might make a strategic calculation, and vote for Candidate B, despite her support for horrible policies, because a country led by her would be a mere disappointment, rather than the unmitigated disaster that we would have under politician 3.

Maybe our strategy works out, and we get Candidate B; maybe it doesn’t, and we get Candidate C. It doesn’t actually matter that much, because I’m not talking about the outcome of this election. I’m talking about the outcome of the next election. You see, Candidate B isn’t stupid. She knows that lots of people voted for her despite her less than awesome policies. So she, being a shrewed politician, will say to herself “Look at that! Those people voted for me no matter what I said, just because I was better than that other person. And they will continue to do so as long as I’m just a little bit less horrible than Candidate C.” She then noticed, however, that the more horrible voters are not locked down, and many of them in fact voted for Candidate C. So she stands to gain by going a bit closer to their preferences. Knowing that she can count on votes from the other side of the spectrum so long as she remains at least a little bit less horrible than Candidate C, she decides on a course of action. She becomes more horrible.

Next election, then, we voters are faced with the same choice: Vote with our hearts, for candidate A, or be pragmatic and vote for Candidate B to avoid Candidate C. The problem is that now Candidate B is more horrible than she once was. As long as we keep holding our nose and voting for her, she will keep getting more horrible, until she is indistinguishable from Candidate C.

You might be thinking that this is all theoretical, and in practice politics doesn’t work like that. You are right that the real situation is a lot more complicated than the one I’ve presented here. But ideal models can be useful for predicting real-life situations, and in this case I’ve got some real-life evidence that is literally written in stone:

In case you aren’t familiar with British politics, that kind of dweeby-looking guy guy next to the giant stone tablet is Ed Miliband, former leader of the British Labour Party. The British Labour Party, incidentally, used to have the word “socialist” in its constitution. Miliband is standing next to a giant stone tablet on which he has written the distinctly non-socialist promise of controls on immigration. Not written on the tablet is the fact that Miliband also supported significant cuts to the public sector. That’s partly because he could count on progressives to vote for him, so he decided his best strategy was to pander to the right.

Indeed, progressives did vote for him. In droves. It wasn’t enough-Conservative leader and well-known horrible person David Cameron won a majority, and Miliband resigned his leadership position. But now, Labour is having a leadership race, where some candidates are proposing moving even further to the right. You see how that works?

That brings me to Justin Trudeau. Justin Trudeau supported bill C-51, a bill that literally repeals the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. He did that because he counted on sensible and decent people to overlook it on the grounds that he is more decent than Stephen Harper, and more viable than Thomas Mulcair. Fortunately, Canadians do not appear to have overlooked it, and Trudeau is no longer more viable than Thomas Mulcair. But the fat lady hasn’t sung yet, and Trudeau might pull into the lead yet, at which point we will be asked to vote strategically for him. If we do, however, then we give him a green light to vote for all the sketchy security legislation that Stephen Harper can dream up.

I’m not arguing that we have to compeltely abandon the idea of strategic voting. It has its uses, and a thinking voter should still be willing to consider it as an option. But a thinking voter should also have limits. We should have red lines that we will punish any candidate for crossing, even if it appears as if we will let in the worst possible option by doing so. Because if we don’t have those kind of principles, then basic game theory logic dictates that our choices will get worse, and worse, and worse.

So this election, Trudeau needs to suffer for his support of C-51. If he ever expresses any remorse about his support for the bill, then maybe we can talk about strategic voting. But in the meantime, he needs to know that if he wants the support of progressives, he has to do more than just be less horrible than Stephen Harper.

(Oh, and if you don’t like the implications of what I’m saying, then you should probably campaign for electoral reform)

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