How You Can Stop Voting Naively and Start Voting Strategically

Some people are naive voters, their votes accomplish nothing, and, for them, voting is a complete waste of time. Many people are strategic voters at a gut level, but they don’t understand how their voting is strategic or how they might pursue more complex voting strategies. My goal here is to turn naive voters into strategic voters and to turn gut-level strategic voters into self-consciously strategic voters with greater political influence.

But why would I want to help make other voters, including my political opponents, more strategic in their voting? It’s not like I can publish my advice and hope that only my allies will read it. Aren’t I just encouraging both sides to up their games, resulting in no net gains? I think not.

A major problem with politics today is that egalitarian “eat the rich” primary voters largely drive the Democratic party, while theocratic primary voters largely drive the Republican party. That is, both parties are disproportionately driven by ideologies that most Americans do not share. I think that if more voters become more strategic, that will help diffuse political influence and improve both parties over time. Or so one can hope.

I’m writing this article  partly in response to feedback, much of it explosively angry, that I’ve received via email and social media regarding two of my recent articles about Ted Cruz.

Here’s the backstory in brief: I like many of Cruz’s policies and pronouncements, but I’m more than a little irritated with him for lurching hard toward theocratic conservatism. I’m so irritated over one particular incident (his dalliance with Kevin Swanson) that I declared I’ll vote for any Democrat over Cruz, unless Cruz apologizes.

Even though I wrote a follow-up piece explaining some of the reasoning behind my political strategy, various respondents continued to basically misunderstand what it is that I’m up to. A typical response amounted to (and I exaggerate only very slightly), “Oh my God! You mean you’d actually support the dastardly Marxist Islamofascist-loving Hillary Clinton, who will leave America in smoldering ashes, over the shining knight of reason and liberty Ted Cruz, who will lead America to renewed greatness? You are evil.”

I ruminated over how such respondents could be so dense as to totally misunderstand the nature and purpose of my political stance. Then it occurred to me: Such people have actually never thought seriously about political strategy, and they have no grasp of it. To the degree that they’re strategic voters, it’s by accident, not conscious design.

Obviously political strategy is an enormously complex topic, so here I want to narrow the discussion only to basic voting strategies. I want to discuss naive voting, which here I call “duty voting,” and five types of strategic voting.

Duty Voting

A naive voter looks at voting as a social duty. A duty voter will examine the candidates, pick a slate of candidates, quietly fill out the ballot, and consider the duty fulfilled—all without giving any thought to the impact of the vote.

A duty vote has no impact. Duty voting is a total waste of time, at least in the context of large-scale (national) elections in which one’s vote will almost certainly never impact the outcome of any election. (By contrast, individual votes actually have some realistic chance, however remote, of making a difference in very-competitive regional races.)

In all seriousness, duty voters would be better off staying home (or leaving their mailed ballots unopened) and doing something else. So let’s turn to the various types of strategic voting.

Social Pressure Voting

Most people, at some level, understand that their purpose in voting is not merely to cast a single ballot in a large-scale election. Rather, their purpose of voting is to mutually encourage their allies to vote, too, and thereby to achieve an outcome they favor. Such social pressure voting is the most widely practiced form of strategic voting.

To put the matter in terms of public choice economics, voting is “irrational” for the individual voter, because an individual vote will not sway the outcome of the election. However, if I and all of my allies sit home, and our opponents show up to vote, then we will all lose out. So voting becomes what the economists call a “free rider problem”—individual voters are tempted to free ride on the efforts of other voters, but, if all the voters of a given camp free ride, none of those voters get what they want. In these terms, social pressure voting is a way to overcome the free rider problem in voting.

As a matter of strategy, social pressure voting is very simple. It amounts basically to publicly making it known what political team you’re likely to support, publicly announcing that you’re going to vote, and suggesting that you might be irritated with those of your allies who don’t vote. This could be as simple has having a water-cooler discussion about the election or posting a remark on Facebook.

Social pressure voting is the most widely practiced form of strategic voting, and it’s important. It does not, however, exhaust the forms of strategic voting. Other forms of strategic voting can have even more impact in an election, for those who wish to pursue them.

Endorsement Voting

I suppose that the second-most common form of strategic voting is endorsement voting. Here the idea is that, not only do you encourage “your team” to go out and vote, you publicly articulate a case for voting for a particular candidate. This type of strategic voting often is more important during primaries, when many candidates with similar views vie for a chance to appear in the general election.

The purpose of endorsement voting, quite simply, is to try to persuade people sitting on the fence, whether they are other primary voters or swing voters in the general, to embrace your candidate of choice.

The public pronouncement is an essential element of endorsement voting. Whenever you promote a candidate on social media or among your friends, in the context of explaining your pending vote, you are practicing the strategy. Of course, you could endorse a candidate without voting at all, but the idea here is that, by endorsing a particular candidate and publicly declaring your intention to vote for that candidate, you help drum up support for the candidate in terms of voter turnout. (There are many other ways of supporting a candidate that I won’t discuss here.)

Lesser of Evils Voting

If you openly declare, “I’m voting for Candidate A over Candidate B, not because I like Candidate A but because I regard that candidate as somewhat less-bad than the other,” that is the essence of strategically voting for the lesser of evils.

Again, the public pronouncement is the key to this sort of strategy. Electorally, the outcome of actively endorsing a candidate, versus declaring you’re voting for the candidate only as the lesser of evils, is identical (and totally irrelevant, because your single vote doesn’t matter). The purpose is to put the candidate and that candidate’s party on notice that you’re not happy with your choices, and they better shape up in the future if they want your continued support.

NOTA Voting

Threatening to vote for “none of the above” (NOTA) rather than the candidate you’d normally be presumed to support is a very powerful political tool. Among Republicans, two groups routinely use this strategy to great effect: Religious conservatives and gun owners. Groups that advocate abortion bans routinely threaten candidates in this way. I’ve heard it plausibly argued that gun owners sitting home out of a sense of Republican betrayal has swung at least one presidential election (although Dave Kopel argues Bush the Elder still would have lost to Clinton, just not as badly).

The strategy of NOTA voting essentially communicates, “My candidate or party has betrayed me so badly that I’m willing to sit on the fence this cycle, even if the other candidate wins.” NOTA voting takes the long view: The goal is primarily to alter the course of one’s favored political party long term, not influence the current election.

Punishment Voting

NOTA voting is one method of punishing one’s candidate or party, but there’s an even more powerful method of punishment voting: Threatening to vote for the opposing candidate rather than merely not vote. If you want to call this the “nuclear option” of voting, that’s probably apt.

The electoral reasoning behind this is straight-forward. To create a simplified scenario, let’s assume there are one hundred voters in a particular race, and that the predicted outcome would be 52 votes for Candidate A and 48 votes for Candidate B. But then let’s say three of Candidate A’s supporters become very annoyed with something their candidate does or proposes. How do they get the candidate to shape up?

If they threaten merely not to vote, then Candidate A still wins, only by a narrower margin of 49 to 48. (Voting for a minor-party candidate yields the same numbers.) Candidate A, if he can predict this, might say, “I realize you three are angry, but so what? I’m still going to win, so screw you.” But if the three angry voters threaten to exercise the “nuclear option,” then Candidate A faces the real risk of losing the race by a margin of 49 to 51. What do you think Candidate A’s attitude will become with respect to those three voters, even though they constitute a tiny three percent of the electorate in this example? That’s pretty obvious.

Notice that punishment voting has nothing to do with “supporting” the opposing candidate, in the sense of expressing positive approval or moral sanction of that candidate. Punishment voting is essentially communicating to a candidate (and the candidate’s supporters), “Yes, I hate the opposing candidate, but I’m so pissed off at you over the matter at hand that I’m threatening to ‘go nuclear’ on your ass to try to get your attention.”

Punishment voting is an extreme and uncomfortable move, which is why most people never even consider it as a possibility, much less execute it. But I’m not most people, and I think that Cruz’s open pandering to theocratic conservatives completely merits the threat of punishment voting.

As with NOTA voting, punishment voting takes a long view. The idea is that, even if we (the punishers) end up throwing the upcoming election, we’re going to work toward the long-term improvement of our political candidates. Maybe a candidate we hate will win this time, but hopefully next time, and on into the future, we’ll get a candidate that we like.

Of course, there are two types of punishment voting, absolute and conditional. If you’re so upset with a candidate that there is no way that candidate could find redemption in your eyes, you might just want to announce a firm punishment vote. But if you still think there’s hope for your candidate, you might want to announce conditional punishment. That is, if the candidate shapes up, you will rescind your threat of voting for the opposing candidate. (At this point, that’s my position with respect to Cruz.)

I can understand if people want to criticize a threat of punishment voting in a given case: As noted, it’s an extreme move. But it does annoy me when people pretend that a punishment vote is something other than what it is. If you want to argue I’m wrong, great, but don’t be a complete idiot about it by ignoring the hard realities of strategic voting in our winner-take-all system.

At any rate, I sincerely hope that my allies, my critics, and my opponents all adopt more strategic voting, as I think that will make some headway toward improving the American political scene over time.