Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Strategic Voting and the Lesser Evil

     I just spent an hour or two toiling over a blog post about voting for the lesser evil, always with the feeling that I was somehow repeating myself, and of course, I was. I'd already written this piece last year.
     But I still want to say something about the impending U.S. election. I've been hearing a lot from people who say they cannot bring themselves to vote for either major candidate, and who intend to either stay home, write in someone who's not on the ballot, or vote for one of the third party candidates. Pragmatically, I don't think any of these are good choices.

     Staying home and not voting at all is defensible only if you're truly indifferent as to the outcome. As I argued in the link above, declining to vote is not choosing "none of the above", but "any of the above", and if there's even one candidate you think is ever so slightly better than the others, you should vote for them. Or, if there's one candidate who's significantly worse, then you should vote for the candidate with the best chance of defeating them. But you cannot wash your hands of responsibility for who wins by declining to vote.

     Writing in a candidate who's not on the ballot is, I suppose, a way to register one's displeasure with the official candidates, but having worked several elections (albeit in Canada, not the U.S.), I can tell you that the people staying up late to count the ballots by hand are a poor audience for such a gesture. And the candidate who eventually does win is unlikely ever to know of, let alone be moved by your symbolic rebuke. In pragmatic terms, this is equivalent to not voting at all.

     And this leaves us with the third party candidates. The U.S. is essentially a two-party system, which usually makes the choice relatively straightforward: choose the candidate you prefer, and whoever gets the most votes is logically the one preferred by a majority of voters. But in Canada, we have a parliamentary system in which there are usually at least three major parties realistically vying for seats. (At present, there are MPs from the Liberals, the Conservatives, the NDP, the Greens, the Bloc Québécois, and an independent.) This means that we Canadians don't always get to just choose our favorite; sometimes, if there's a candidate we really detest, we may need to vote for whichever candidate has the best chance of defeating them, even if that means not voting for our first choice. We call this "strategic voting".
     Strategic voting is kind of controversial because it unfortunately reinforces the disadvantage faced by less established parties. You can only win an election if enough people vote for you, but if nobody will vote for you until they are confident someone else will, you're stuck. So it's very difficult to break into the game until you've already broken into it.
     I am not fond of strategic voting, which is why I'd like to see Canada adopt a preferential ballot system; I'd like to be able to rank the candidates in my order of preference. But I'm also a realist; I recognize that the very nature of democracy is compromise. None of us gets everything we want, but the democratic process is a way of ensuring that most of us get some of what we want without having to kill each other.
     And so on occasion I have voted strategically, settling for my second choice in order to defeat the party I thought most needed to be defeated. I felt a bit icky about it, but as they say, freedom isn't free. Sometimes you do need to make sacrifices and compromises in order to preserve what's important. By holding out for all of what you want, you risk losing everything, and while there is a glamourous romanticism of that kind of all-or-nothing bravado, it's worth noting that such fanaticism is often exactly what we detest in the other party's supporters. People can be passionately, uncompromisingly, devotedly wrong. Being reasonable starts with recognizing that.

     Whoever is elected President will have to struggle every day with difficult choices between imperfect alternatives. Do I implement this program, knowing that it will put some people out of business, or do I refuse to, knowing that it will leave some people unemployed? Do I authorize this military intervention, knowing innocent civilians may be killed, or do I refuse, knowing that innocent civilians are being killed? Why would anyone expect the decision of whom to entrust with these decisions to leave your hands any cleaner?