The Frustrating Fallacy of the Wasted Vote

Please note: this piece was written as a political opinion piece for a light-hearted left-wing student newspaper, so it has a more light-hearted, informal and humorous tone than the other work I display on here, which is more philosophically rigorous and academic in nature.

The Golden Age in engagement with politics comes round like clockwork every five years – it is those all-encompassing 2-3 weeks before the general election. At this time and this time only, hordes of people who for the past few years have thoughtlessly flicked past the Politics sections in their newspaper of choice, hastily changed the channel whenever a boring politician has come on the news, and quite frankly ignored every change in policy that wasn’t linked to their tax code all suddenly, as one, develop unshakeable political opinions apparently linked to their very identity. They swot up on everything evil the enemy party have done, quote endless facts and figures as if they’ve known them for years, relentlessly argue with people who they normally find most pleasant about major political differences that simply haven’t been brought up before and develop an insatiable appetite for heartfelt Facebook statuses demonizing those who voted differently.

And then it is over. #GE2015 stops trending; your interest in it has waned. And, in the week or so after the election, as the right-wing media stops shouting in our ears about Ed Miliband’s bacon sandwich, many electoral fallacies are retrospectively cleaned up. It turns out the world’s leading economists are as settled on austerity being a bad thing as leading scientists are on climate change being a bad thing[1][2][3][4][5]. It turns out the Tories have maybe not been so successful over the last five years as they were claiming[6]. It turns out David Cameron wants to repeal the Human Rights Act[7][8]. Sure, there were plenty of people who knew all this stuff before the election, and voted because of it or in spite of it, but many people didn’t. There have been brilliant articles written and shared which have genuinely served to make some people think again and – I know even in some of my friend’s cases – regret the party they voted for.

But there has been one fallacy left largely unchallenged – a fallacy that seems to be as common amongst lefty discourse as it is amongst righty discourse. It surrounds the mysterious phenomenon of tactical voting. If you read the title of this before you clicked on it, you may well have correctly guessed that I have chosen to call this a remarkably snappy name if I say so myself: it is The Frustrating Fallacy of the Wasted Vote.

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The Frustrating Fallacy of the Wasted Vote

I voted Green on the 7th May 2015. The Greens have policies on immigration and housing and CrossRail and taxation and the foreign aid budget and education and the NHS; policies that some people agree with and some people disagree with. Yet the most common response I have had when I share my voting preference with friends, family and colleagues is the same whether their views are remarkably liberal or quite terrifyingly right-wing: “Oh – but that’s a wasted vote.”

A wasted vote.

Let’s just clear up what people mean when they say “a wasted vote”. The reason people identify a Green vote (or any other minority party vote) as a “wasted vote” is because the party in question is extremely unlikely to win the seat. In my constituency of Twickenham, some of my more left-leaning friends voted Lib Dem. This was a “tactical vote” to keep out the Conservatives. Labour would be “a wasted vote”, as they had little to no chance of winning in the borough. It’s pretty simple terminology, and we’re used to people using it all the time. And, somehow, when talking about the election, it is terminology that we seem to accept it as a given.

So, I think what people mean when they say “a wasted vote” is that it is a vote that doesn’t make a difference to who wins a seat in that constituency.

Hang on a minute, though. No single vote ever makes a difference to who wins a seat. Since 1945 (post-war politics) there has never been a constituency where it has been down to one vote.

In fact, in the entirety of UK history, there have been just two cases of constituencies where just one vote was relevant. These were in 1886 and 1910 – and on turnouts of 6,099 and 9,553 respectively. Now, an average constituency receives more than 70,000 votes. And, these outcomes were then ultimately decided undemocratically anyway – in the 1886 case it was down to the Returning Officer to decide who was the winner, and in the 1910 case, the courts selected a winner.

The chances of there being a single vote in it are, even in a particularly close constituency, still astronomically small. Estimates on just how small vary quite dramatically, but at the most generous you’re looking at about a 1/10,000 chance of your known-to-be-close constituency actually being a 1-vote-in-it constituency. In other constituencies we’re talking of chances at worse odds than winning the lottery. (An interesting consequence of this is that it leads to the old adage “if you didn’t vote, you can’t complain about politics!” being comparable to telling a homeless person “if you don’t play the lottery, you can’t complain that you’re poor!”)

So, whether you vote for the winner, the runner-up or the unheard of independent candidate, your vote is a ‘wasted vote’ by this definition – as it doesn’t make a difference to who wins in the constituency. (And, of course, this is all without even getting started on how little difference that makes to who actually forms a government and which policies actually get passed).

Of course, if you can get thousands of people to change their vote, then tactical voting does work. But let’s be realistic here. In my “very close” seat, the Conservatives knocked out Vince Cable by 2,017 votes. For me to have persuaded 2,017 people – about double the number of Facebook friends I have – to vote for the Lib Dems would be unlikely. For none of them to have been voting for the Lib Dems anyway would have been even more unlikely. And for all those people to all have lived in the same constituency would be even more unlikely still!

But let me humour you for a moment. Let’s imagine I was famous, and people knew who I was, and they really respected me and listened to me, and I didn’t have a job but I did have loads of money so I spent all my time campaigning, and I had brilliant resources, and due to the most amazing PR strategy the world had ever seen I had personally managed to persuade 2017 would-be Labour voters in the Twickenham constituency to vote Lib Dem (or – even better – only a measly 1009 would-be Conservatives, as their vote would be a -1 to the Conservatives as well as a +1 to the Lib Dem vote, so we’d have only needed half the amount). I’m sure we can all accept this is an extremely unlikely scenario. But – and here’s the thing – even if this was the case, it would still make no logical sense for me as a singular voter to vote tactically when I was actually in the booth – even if I believed I had persuaded thousands others. Because, without any actual inside knowledge of the voting numbers, the chances of the result coming down to 1 vote would still be so slim. So, it is still illogical for you, personally, to vote tactically.

So, just to confirm, whether you voted for the Cannabis Is Safer Than Alcohol party, or whether you voted for the Conservatives, and whether you voted in the close constituency of Thurrock or in the landslide constituency of Sevenoaks, your vote was just as wasted as mine.

So, I guess it now looks like I’m going down to head down the hard-line behavioural economics line[9], which says that, logically, because the probability of your vote making a difference is so amazingly slim, it is in fact never worth your time to even bother turning up to vote – even if it’s only five minutes to register online and five minutes’ walk to your nearest polling booth.

Well, no, not exactly. Although it is a position I sympathize with, for now I will favour a slightly less dramatic but no less important conclusion.

What I’m saying is, to think a vote counts if it goes towards the winner – or towards a candidate that doesn’t win but had a good chance – isn’t a wasted vote, but that a vote for a party that were never going to win is a wasted vote, is a completely erroneous judgement.

Maybe a more positive note to finish on. Here are some positive reasons that votes can make a difference, and how voting for a minority party can help.

Firstly, voting for a minority party really helps the push for electoral reform. The more people vote for minority parties, the more outdated and ridiculous the FPTP system looks. (Note: if you don’t want electoral reform, you won’t see this as a positive point. Obviously.)

Secondly, voting for a minority party can encourage the major parties to change their policies. Parties create policies that they think they will win votes on. 1,157,613 people who may well have otherwise voted Labour chose to vote Green on 7th May. Hopefully, this will encourage the Labour party to make their policies more environmentally friendly, for instance – in order to entice those naughty hippie outliers back into voting Labour. Similarly, the large UKIP vote will encourage the Conservatives to take a tougher stance on immigration and the EU than they may have otherwise. Voting for a minority party is a way of making your dissent with the major parties known, but, alternatively to a spoiled ballot paper, it’s clearer why you’re dissenting and what you want instead.

Of course, I accept on both of these points one could well logically argue that your vote is wasted too: 1,157,613 voting Green will make no actual difference to whether Labour decides to change a particular policy compared to 1,157,612 voters. Essentially, this is also true, but only in the same way it is with many things that are achieved collectively (for instance, it is highly likely that a demonstration of 3 million people wouldn’t have a different outcome depending on whether you came or not, but generally you would attend a demonstration not because you believed you personally would be the agent of change, but because you believed in something so strongly that you wanted to be part of the collective that did bring change). Also, straw that broke the camel’s back, and all that.

In conclusion, I didn’t write this article to advise you not to bother voting. I wrote it to advise you not to bother voting for someone that you don’t agree with under the irrational banner of ‘tactical voting’. If you are going to bother turning up, then you may as well vote for someone you actually agree with. The lesser of two evils is still evil.

Or, how about this. Seeing as it doesn’t really matter who you vote for anyway (unless this article suddenly goes viral in a particular constituency in #GE2020 – which, despite being quite personally ambitious for the reach of my work, I highly doubt) just stop propagating the fib that a vote for a party that got 1 MP or less was any more wasted than yours was.











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