In a couple of weeks, voters in the USA will go to the polls to fill a number of offices, including the electors who will either return Barack Obama to the White House for another four years as the country’s president or replace him with former Massachusetts governor Willard M. “Mitt” Romney. To be more precise, that is when the last voters will cast their ballots; millions of of Americans, Mrs Acilius and I among them, have already cast absentee ballots.
The missus and I did not, as it happens, vote for either Mr O or his leading opponent. We had planned to vote for Ross “Rocky” Anderson, former mayor of Salt Lake City, Utah, whose independent bid focuses, first, on opposition to the wars the USA is currently waging or underwriting in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, Libya, Mali, Mauretania, and heaven knows how many other countries; second, on opposition to “anti-terrorism” policies that have compromised the rule of law so drastically that Mr O openly boasts of murders he has ordered and plans to order in the future; third, on support for investigation and prosecution of any and all war crimes that recent US presidents have sponsored. But Mr Anderson did not gain sufficient support to be certified as a candidate in our state. So we voted instead for Green Party nominee Jill Stein. Dr Stein agrees with Mr Anderson on all of those points, but focuses her campaign on environmental policy and poverty issues.
Many people like to say that, because Mr O and Mr Romney are the only candidates with any chance of winning next month’s election, votes for any other candidate are “wasted.” On its face, this expression is nonsensical. It isn’t as if the polling places were casinos where the machines pay out if voters cast a ballot for a winner. I have often asked people what they meant they say that votes for candidates unlikely to win are “wasted,” and have read many internet comment threads where people have been asked to explain what they mean by it. The response is invariably a repetition of the claim that some candidate or other is unlikely to win, usually accompanied by a lot of bluster asserting that it is a sign of some moral deficiency to vote for anyone other than a likely winner.
Incoherent as these responses are, they seem to reflect a distinction that political scientists make between two kinds of voting behavior. They talk about “instrumental voting” and “expressive voting.” Instrumental voting, in its most basic form, represents a voter’s hope that s/he will cast the decisive ballot; expressive voting represents the voter’s attempt to make his or her policy preferences clear.
Political scientists sometimes go to great lengths to defend the rationality of instrumental voting. Yet a moment’s reflection should suffice to show that in any election where the electorate is more than 600 or 700 people, the likelihood that there will be a single decisive ballot is quite small. In a race like that for US president, where over one hundred million ballots will be cast and the electoral process is indirect, the probability that the outcome will be decided by a single ballot is effectively nil. Meanwhile, if it is generally expected that the same electorate will vote again in the future and that such voting will be comparable in importance to the present election, political actors will analyze the results of the election as they formulate their plans for governing and campaigning. The more votes a losing candidate receives, the more likely the policies associated with that candidate are to receive serious consideration in the interval before the next election. Nowadays, the methods of analysis that parties, advocacy groups, candidates, and other political actors apply to election returns are so sensitive that even tiny numbers of votes can provide elected officials with information that they may profitably use in forming their approach to governing and campaigning. Therefore, it is not too much to say that expressive voting is in fact the only rational form of voting behavior wherever the electorate is larger than a few hundred people.
What brought all this to my mind were three pieces I recently read dealing with the 2012 campaign. Two of them were from lefties exasperated with Democrats telling them that any vote not cast for Mr O is effectively an endorsement of Mr Romney’s worst proposals; these were from Ted Rall and M. G. Piety of Counterpunch. Another was from a right-wingers exasperated with Republicans telling him that any vote not cast for Mr Romney is effectively an endorsement of the misdeeds of the Obama administration; this was from Mark P. Shea. In particular, Mr Rall’s arguments, and even his presentation of them as a series of replies to Frequently-Asked-Questions, are remarkably similar to Mr Shea’s. Of course, the two are poles apart on most issues, but do unite in opposition to the idea of voting for either Mr O or his Republican counterpart.