Spintech: February 12, 2000

How To Avoid "Wasting Your Vote"
by Leon Felkins

"In the last election, I wanted to vote for Perot, but I knew he couldn't win, so to avoid wasting my vote, I voted for Bush instead."
--Anonymous, heard on National Public Radio, May, 1996

Folk wisdom has it that if you vote for a candidate that has little chance of winning, you are "wasting your vote" and, therefore, you really should vote for someone who has some chance -- that is, a Republican or a Democrat. This interesting bit of wisdom is shared by the "man on the street", the college professor and the news person alike. Let us take a closer look at this unchallenged piece of "logic".

Your Vote from Two Perspectives

The significance of your vote depends on the perspective from which it is viewed. Of course, votes in mass determine the result of an election and your vote from that point of view -- let us call it the macro view -- increases the chances of your candidate winning.

But there is another way to look at the importance of your vote and that is from your own personal perspective -- let us call that the micro view. Many aspects of life have widely different appearances depending on the perspective. An example from the physical world is the fact that the molecules of water in an ocean wave move in directions seemingly totally unrelated to the direction the wave is moving. And in politics, the election process has a decidedly different view depending on whether it is the macro view (the usual view of the soliciting politician) or the micro view (the usual view of the individual voter).

Strangely, many people do not understand that there are two viewpoints and often view their vote from the "vote solicitors" view, the macro view. The soliciting politician sees voters as a large mass in the same way as he sees a pile of sand. That is, he doesn't see millions of individual particles but one pile of sand. If you remove one or two grains from his pile, he would not be concerned but if you came in with a backhoe and started to remove buckets full, he would get upset. And the same goes for voters. He doesn't concern himself about individual votes but instead "buckets" of votes, more or less, definitely gets his attention.

Now let us switch to your perspective. You are not "buckets" of votes, you are just one vote. While your one vote may not mean much to the politician, it means everything to you. Your vote is costly to you (or at least should be). Not only do you have to take time and some expense to vote, you have to be somewhat knowledgeable about the candidates and issues which should take quite a bit of your time. Further, you also have an interest in what kind of reward you will receive for voting. For if there is no reward, there would be no purpose in voting (a reward can be as simple as feeling good for doing your duty).

Looking at your vote from this personal, micro, point of view results in a rather disturbing conclusion: your vote will make no impact on the election results. [1]

Think about this: Let us say that your candidate has promised a tax relief of $10,000 to every working adult and you know that if your candidate wins you will receive that relief. You rightly conclude that it is worth your while to vote for this guy but let us say that something happened and you were unable to vote. Did the loss of your vote result in you not getting the $10,000 break? Not very likely!

So, Why Vote?

From your perspective then, we have to conclude that voting for the purpose of making an impact on the election results is not rational. The only way your vote can make an impact is if there is a tie -- which has never happened and never will (in a national election, for sure!).

Fortunately, there are other reasons for voting, a major one being the internal self-satisfaction of "doing your part" for democracy. This reason, along with others such as the respect of neighbors and friends, is a very legitimate reason for voting.

Avoiding "Wasting My Vote"

Then if you agree with my assertion that your vote will not actually impact the election results in any way, why lose the real benefit of voting -- your personal satisfaction -- by voting for someone you don't really want? You truly are wasting your vote if you do not vote for your true preference. Since your single vote will not impact the election, if you vote for someone other than your preference, you truly are wasting your vote, for you have lost the only reward for voting - your personal satisfaction.

The Positive Benefits of Honest Voting

From your micro point of view, voting for your candidate of choice gives you the major benefit from voting: personal self-satisfaction. But let us look at the macro view again. From the macro view, there is yet another good reason for voting your real choice: true popular choice is realized. How can a third party ever become established -- since it must start small -- if people always follow the strategy of voting only for one of the top two parties? Such a voting practice completely eliminates any chance of a third party ever becoming established. Is that what we want? I think not -- but that is certainly what the two major parties want and that is why they promote the idea that voting for other candidates is wasting your vote.

In conclusion, we see that, from a personal point of view, an individual's tiny vote cannot impact the results of a national election. Still, we should vote and we should vote for our desired candidate. An individual who does so, will have the satisfaction of standing true to her beliefs while at the same time knowing that she has not caused either of the top candidates to win or lose. Only when you do not vote your honest choice is your vote wasted!!

Further, if we all vote honestly, new candidates and new parties have a chance of becoming established. To vote otherwise is to endanger democracy.


1.) I quote from Loren Lomasky's essay, "The Booth and Consequences", published in Reason magazine, November, 1992:

"Since the chance of one's own vote proving decisive is less by several orders of magnitude than the likelihood of being maimed in an auto accident while on the way to the polls, it would seem that a truly rational person will instead devote the half hour in question to reading a good book, drinking whiskey sours, or pursuing some other end that yields a perceptible positive return."

Leon Felkins is a retired engineer, Army officer and former teacher of computer systems. He now maintains a web page on political philosophy, "A Rational Life", and a "Political Almanac."

Copyright 2000 Leon Felkins. All rights reserved.