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August 08, 2004

Should I Vote for Someone Who Has No Chance to Win?

That is a good and practical question. Currently Bush, Kerry, Badnarik, and Nader are running for President. Currently it seems that only Bush and Kerry have a chance to win, and all the Libertarian Badnarik and Leftwinger Nader will do is drain away some votes from those two. So suppose you are a libertarian. Should you vote for Badnarik to express your libertarianism, or for Bush because though you like his policy views less, you much prefer him to Kerry>?

This is a hard question, but I'd like to suggest one idea: Vote for the person you'd like to see win. Pretend that you are the only person voting, so you get to decide which candidate wins.

That, after all, is the ostensible reason we vote: to choose the best candidate. Scholars in political economy call it "sincere voting", as opposed to "strategic voting", in which the voter makes some choice other than his true choice in the hope of manipulating the rules. It is much easier to design an efficient voting system if a social norm exists which causes everyone to vote sincerely. This is complicated enough that I'll use an example to illustrate.

Here's the example. If two people are voting on where to set the thermostat, then if they can be trusted to vote sincerely, the voting system can be that each votes for a temperature and then the two votes are averaged, which will work out to a good compromise. Albert would choose his preferred 70 degrees and Bob would choose his 76, and they would compromise on 73. If, however, Bob votes strategically, it would turn out that Albert would choose 70, Bob would choose 82, and the compromise would be 76-- Bob's true first choice. If Albert knows that Bob would vote strategically, then Albert would not accept this voting system in the first place. In fact, without sincere voting, there is no voting system that will achieve a good outcome.

So sincere voting is a desirable thing. Presidential elections are a bit different, because it is very unlikely that any one person's vote will affect the outcome. But for that very reason it should be easier to establish a norm of sincere voting. Are you worried that your vote for Nader instead of Kerry will cost Kerry the election? Don't worry. That is most unlikely to happen. Even Florida in 2000 was not decided by one vote. Bush's margin, by any of the many methods the Gore people veered among, was in the 100's of votes, if I remember correctly (it certainly was for the final judicial count and for the first official recount, before the Florida courts started messing with it, and I think it was for all the newspaper-sponsored hypothetical recounts based on Democratic lawsuits asking for differing counting methods-- but that's where I could be wrong).

The same goes for "protest votes". To vote for Nader because you want to teach Kerry a lesson and scare him is a bit silly, because Kerry will not notice your one vote.

So the question for the rightwinger is whether he really would like Badnarik to be President of the United States, instead of Bush. And the question for the leftwinger is whether he really would like Nader to be President of the United States instead of Kerry. Here is what I find most useful about this approach: it is different from asking the question, "Would I prefer Bush, or someone just like Bush except that he had Badnarik's political views?" You may like Badnarik's political views, but you should ask whether you really want an eccentric person in trouble with the law, with no experience in office, and with an undistinguished career in the private sector (see ) to be in charge of our nuclear weapons and in charge of the administration of the federal government. The same question must be asked of Nader versus Kerry, though there, Nader does have a longer and more impressive record of achievement than Kerry(or Bush, if we exclude Bush's first term in office), and perhaps more administrative experience.

On the other hand, a different argument for voting for Badnarik or Nader is precisely that the disruption they would cause in the federal government. If the social security checks don't get delivered, no legislation is passed, and there are lots of wild executive orders that end up in the courts because they clearly violate the law, maybe that is a good thing. Indeed, I can think of an example where, ex post, I voted wrong myself. In 1992, I should have abandoned sentiment and caution, and voted for Perot or Clinton instead of Bush the First. But I'll write about that in a separate post.

Posted by erasmuse at August 8, 2004 11:07 PM

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