Over at John Band’s site they’re all doing Chris Lightfoot’s Who Should You Vote For? (in the coming UK general election) test. Annoyingly, I came out Lib Dem on this though I fully intend to grit my teeth and vote Labour anyway. But for the purposes of this post I’m going to go all meta and discuss what we are trying to do in voting and how that affects how we should vote. Here’s something I posted on the philos-l list just before the 1992 general election:
A friend asked me to provide him with an argument against tactical voting and I came up with this – derived very loosely from some of the things Geoff Brennan says in his ‘Politics with Romance’, in Alan Hamlin and Philip Pettit eds The Good Polity (Blackwell 1989).
The only situation in which an individual voter can affect the outcome is one where there is a tie among the other voters. But in a large electorate this is unlikely to be the case. I want to do two things with my vote: express a preference and secure an outcome. But since my chances of the latter are so small, I may as well concentrate my deliberations on the expressive side. If I am a positive identifier with a particular party— and this is more important to me than my negative feelings towards another party—then even if my party is third I should still vote for it (if I vote). By doing so I secure one of my objectives (the expressive one) but run only a vanishingly small risk of incurring the cost of bringing about a worse outcome than if I had voted tactically. The rational voter should therefore vote for the party she prefers unless it is more important to you expressively to declare your hostility to the party you loathe most – in which case vote for the best placed challenger to that party.
In other words: it is a waste of time and effort to try to bring about a determinate outcome. You’ll almost certainly make no difference. Tactical voting is an attempt to bring about some determinate outcome. But if what is important to you is saying “Blair hooray!” or “Howard boo!” then you can do this perfectly well (voting being only one way of doing it of course). And there’s no merit to the argument that voting for the Lib Dems, Respect, or even the Monster Raving Loony Party is a “wasted vote”. It is no more wasted than any other. So vote for whom you like best, or against whom you hate most, instead of making micro-calculations about effectiveness.
(BTW I realise that this argument deprives me of one lot of nasty things I might say about people who voted for Ralph Nader in either 2000 or 2004, but there are many other nasty things to be said about such people anyway, so I don’t care that much.)