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The myth of the “wasted vote”

Whenever, as is happening just now, a small Political Party seems about to get a big result, the Big Parties orate loudly about how a vote for the Small [fill in the name of the small party] Party will be a “wasted vote“. What does this mean?

To me what it means is that the Big Parties have run out of good arguments to stop people voting for this Small Party in embarassingly unsmall numbers, and are instead resorting to a ridiculous argument which they hope will pack a punch despite the fact that it makes no sense whatever.

A large number of people in Britain have just recently realised that Britain is in the process of becoming a small clutch of provinces of a new country, EUrope. They have never wanted this, but until recently they did not notice that it was happening, so they saw no need to vote against it. Now they realise that it is happening, despite all the mendacious protestations of the Big Parties, and a Small Party has stepped forward to enable them to register their disapproval. And depending on how many people vote for the Small Party, the Big Parties will either perhaps change their policy of British provincialism, or definitely not change it. If all they did at elections was announce the winner, like on Oscar night, this “wasted vote” argument might have some force. But as it is, every vote is not only counted, but every total is announced, and scrutinised, and analysed. Any detectable surges of opinion are most definitely taken into account, even if only by the Big Parties concocting some different lies to replace their old ones.

To get more serious, and to prove my point by taking it to an absurd extreme, suppose that UKIP got absolutely no votes at all at the forthcoming elections, local and European. Would this be a result no different from UKIP getting the number they are actually going to get, namely quite a lot? Would that make no difference? You get my point, I hope. And if a large difference in the UKIP vote would definitely have a large consequence, then it surely follows that a small difference (the difference that one voter makes by voting UKIP or not or the case may be) makes a small difference.

It is being argued that more UKIP Members of the EUroParliament will not be able to do anything of consequence there, on account of disbelieving in the place. Nonsense. They will gather reports and anecdotes galore about EUro-ghastliness. They will learn more about how the EUro-system works, and get that much cleverer at fouling it up. Of course they will be able to do things to serve the purposes of themselves and of those who vote for them.

And besides, is a vote for a Big Party any less of a “wasted” vote than for a Small Party? Voting is not betting on a horse in a horse race, where you get actual money back if you back the winner, but nothing if you do not. So, you voted for The Government, did you? Well con bleeding gratulations. Try not to spend it all at once.

More fundamentally, why would voting for what you do believe in, and being counted and seen to have voted for what you believe in, be more of a “waste” than voting for what you do not believe in, merely because what you do not believe in is more likely to win? How in the world is that getting more of what you want?

In short, and not for the first time in my life (or the last time in my life I dare say), I agree with Perry de Havilland.

24 comments to The myth of the “wasted vote”

  • Voting is not betting on a horse in a horse race, where you get actual money back if you back the winner, but nothing if you do not.

    Pity. There’s no reason(Link) why it couldn’t be.

  • An excellent analysis Brian. This ‘wasted vote’ argument is extremely silly, it is part of a class of arguments often deployed against libertarians which run along the lines that if what we demand isn’t immediately politically realisible we are in some sense wasting our time. No, the ideas are what are important. It seems to me to be utterly counterproductive to spend time arguing for things you don’t really believe in or campaigning for parties one doesn’t really support. This does not mean that compromise is never appropriate, but at least try to have something with which to bargain.

    A few of us libertarians had a hand in the very early genesis of the UKIP when we stood as candidates in 1992 in its first incarnation as the Anti-Federalist League. I do not normally bother to vote now as I think that voting for the Conservatives really is a waste of time. However I shall make the effort to vote UKIP in the European Elections.

  • In the general election of December 1918 Sinn Fein won but refused to take up the majority of Irish seats in the British Parliament. That was the last election where Southern Ireland voted as a part of Great Britain, and the two facts are not unconnected.

    I despise the modern Sinn Fein and have distinctly mixed feelings about the 1918 version, but, clearly, a vote for Sinn Fein back then did contribute to Sinn Fein’s objective of an independent Irish Republic, despite being “wasted” in the sense the politicians are talking about now. Whatever view one took of the North, the idea of Southern Ireland as part of Britain no longer felt legitimate once a majority had voted against it.

    Not that UKIP is going to get a majority – but a large minority will have a similar if lesser effect that a majority would have had in partially denying legitimacy to the idea of Britain as part ot the EU.

    Incidentally, I think the media are “talking up” the likely UKIP vote in order to make whatever they do actually get look disappointing.

  • GCooper

    Natalie Solent writes:

    “Incidentally, I think the media are “talking up” the likely UKIP vote in order to make whatever they do actually get look disappointing. ”

    Quite. And the disproportionate publicity along the lines of ‘disgraced Tory MP Jonathan Aitiken supports UKIP’ is no coincidence, either.

  • Hank Scorpio

    A vote for a third party isn’t a wasted vote in a parliamentary political system. Coalition governments and some degree of power sharing are a possibility. In a system like the one the US has in place, though, it is a wasted vote as far as actually getting your chosen candidate into office is concerned. It’s just not going to happen, no matter whether you vote Green, Lib, whatever. Look, I’ve voted for a third party candidate before, and I understand the appeal behind doing so. In the long run, though, it’s really just flipping the bird to the established parties.

    That doesn’t, however, mean that I think third parties are useless, even in American politics. They can introduce new ideas, and even send a message to the mainstream parties that their views need to be addressed. The people that voted for Perot in ’92 sent the Republican party a pretty strong message, I believe.

  • Ron

    I think you have to bear in mind the “statistically expected” value your cast vote has towards getting what you want over the next few years.

    For example if a Party has promised 100% of what you want but only 0.001% chance of getting into sufficient power to implement it, then it would be far better to vote for a Party that promises 70% of what you want if it has a 50% chance of getting into power, particularly if an incumbent Party committed to many things you find abhorrent can be ejected with the help of your vote.

  • What Mr. Scorpio said. Different systems make the calculus of voting for a third party candidate different. In the USA it is usually better to support someone you like in the primary, and then vote the lesser evil in the main race. Third party voting is a poor way to spread ideas in our system.

    Incidentally, I signed a petition today to get Nader on the ballot in Illinois. I told the hippy looking fellow with the clipboard that I was a conservative Republican and that I hoped Mr. Nader would attract a lot of votes away from Kerry and help reelect President Bush. He seemed so crestfallen that I detoxified it by saying that Kerry being in the race would give people who totally opposed Bush a real option, too. That seemed to make him feel better.

  • there is a history of collusion here in the States between democrats and republicans to keep reform and third parties out of the mix that include standing unsupported candidates of their own party if that fellow happens to not be the person the “regulars” backed in the primary.

    except for Reagan (the first time) i haven’t voted for the guy who eventually became president since i started voting in 1972. not sure if that’s a reflection on me or the system… but anyway its the truth.

    the Libertarian Party faces a struggle just to get on the ballot sometimes, and every 4 years i have to face the same old thing… you’re wasting your vote.

    its amazing… i know people who are not opposed to gay marriage, believe in non-interventionism, are against the over-spending of big government, abhor the nanny-state, but are going to vote Republican in November anyway…

    talk about wasting a vote?

  • Julian Morrison

    All votes are wasted, because a government in power is very constrained in what it can do. There are a great many things that are theoretically legal, but politically impossible. Governments can’t oppose the people or the prevailing morality in anything large, they can’t easily fight dug-in vested interests, they can’t afford to antagonize their backers. That’s the reason why voting seems to change so little. Politics doesn’t lead, it follows.

  • Verity

    Julian Morrison – The ghastly Tony Blair is engaged in dismantling Britain – turning it into “European regions” with ridiculous “regional assemblies”; it has removed the Crown from the Crown Prosecution; police now take their oath to the state instead of the Queen – a very disturbing development sneaked through without debate; he has buggered up the lords risibly and disgracefully; he has stuffed the House of Lords, which is, after all, the second chamber of our Parliament, not a Petit Trianon for Toneboy and Cherieeee to play in, full of his barrow boy cronies; he is trying to abolish the ancient post of Lord Chancellor without having any understanding whatsoever of how this figure fits into our legislative and and parliamentary system.

    He has buggered about with the education system and completely f-cked exam results (to make Toneboy look good), so everyone is getting 10 or 15 A levels with A grades so exam results are now utterly useless to universities choosing students; he has shovelled people who can’t read or write into “universities” whose main task is to teach remedial reading, and even then employers are aghast at what is walking in to interviews with a “degree”; in other words, he has destroyed the English gold standard of education.

    His thuggish henchman Alastair Campbell browbeat and bullied and excluded any editor who allowed his paper to run a negative article about St Tony. He was planning on taking Britain into the euro against the wishes of the British electorate until so many people found the courage to hold his feet to the fire that he backed down in fright. He has destroyed the police with his MacPherson Report and he has taken a wrecking ball to free speech with his “hate speech” and “hate crimes” laws. He has disarmed the populace.

    He has jammed the country full of hundreds of thousands of illegal aliens who, having walked in illegally have no respect for British law or the British state, and hundreds of thousands of “asylum seekers” and his intent on changing the face of Britain – against the will of the indigenes – is brashly evident to all.

    These are just off the top of my head. I haven’t had my breakfast yet.

    A government in power is constrained in what it can do? Not if it is utterly without constraint by moral considerations and driven by an egomaniac who could justifiably be considered mad.

  • If UKIP votes are ‘wasted’, what will their diversion from the Conservatives stop the Conservatives ‘achieving’ in the EU?

    Howard needs to answer that question clearly.


  • The Tories would have more credibility if they hadn’t signed up to membership of the EPP

    Interestingly, the EPP thinks that the UK has co-opted the Faroe Islands. (Click on the UK part of the map)

  • Julian Morrison

    Verity: …and Blair is acting within the prevailing morality, and according to the demands of the public, to do all that. As evidenced by how terrified the conservatives are of unambiguously saying “we’d roll it all back”.

    And the constraint can be seen, too, in how little Blair has been able to get done. He hasn’t dragged us into a federal europe, yet. He hasn’t nationalized anything. He has raised taxes only by slow increments. He hasn’t even been able to pass the hunting ban, which was a “manifesto commitment” way back in ’97.

  • Verity

    Julian Morrison – I take issue with you, sir. If you asked most British (admittedly, I have not) if they wanted the Crown removed from public prosecutions and replaced with the word People’s for example, I think they would have said, “What’s wrong with the Crown? We’re British. People’s sound like a dictatorship.” Had you asked them whether they wanted every child to have an A in every subject, yet remain illiterate and innumerate, I think they would have said “No! Of course not!”

    Had you asked them whether they wanted their taxes raised to hire armies of a hundred thousand or so Outreach Counsellors and Real Nappy Coordinators, I believe they would have said, “Thanks. I’ll keep my money.” Or to pay for more bureaucrats in the NHS. Or whether they wanted our second chamber stuffed with people who’d done T Blair a favour rather than elected individuals.

    Or whether they wanted to be disarmed and have no right to defend their property, themselves, their families. Or whether they wanted impudent limitations placed on their freedom to speak their minds.

    I believe in all instances, the answer would have been no. I think after these measures were introduced, with Blair’s huge majority, most people felt overwhelmed. They had no idea how to stop the Blair juggernaut. And still don’t.

  • Julian Morrison

    Verity: Okay, lets rephrase those questions as Blair and the blair-public see them. Note that these are NOT my opinions, they’re my estimation of the public’s aggregate opinion.

    1) Do you much care about a name change in an obscure part of the judicial system?

    2) Do you want your school to have a high pass rate?

    3) Are social services important? How about NHS funding?

    4) Do you have fondness for the idea of being ruled by hereditary aristocrats?

    5) Do you think ordinary people need guns?

    (I’m not sure which restriction of freedom to speak ones’ mind you’re talking about.)

    I think people’s answers would largely accord with what has actually happened.

  • The only wasted vote is the one cast for a candidate whose policies and beliefs do not represent yours.

    I expect to see many, many wasted votes in the upcoming US election.

  • Verity

    Julian, I do agree the phrasing can tilt a respondent to giving a desired answer. I’d take issue with you on a couple of points, but on the whole, you are correct that many people will fall for government propaganda if it is presented with enough guile.

  • Julian Morrison

    Verity: Except that wasn’t really my point. The point I was making is, that a typical member of the public would not see the slant I put on the issues above, as “a slant” – if there’s “falling for propaganda” involved, it has already happened. Now the government are singing the public’s tune, rather than vice versa. I say this is the normal state of things: the government does not push, it follows, pretends to push, and tries to claim the credit.

  • Verity

    Julian – I think if you asked a typical member of the public who had just filled in the form, “Do you think these questions are slanted to prod you into giving the reply the questioner wants from you” – most people, on reflection, would answer “Yes”.

  • Andrew


    ‘Never ascribe to malice, that which can be explained
    by incompetence’ – I think sums up the Blair government very well. A series of half-assed ‘reforms’ and throwing more money into bottomless pits and I’m not surprised what has happened. I don’t think it’s malicious, I don’t think there is any hidden conspiracy, I think Blair is trying to answer the questions that Julian phrased above, and is doing a spectacularly bad job of it.


  • M. Simon

    I always get wasted before I vote. It makes the pain tolerable.

  • Dave

    Julian, the problem that Verity and probably many others including my mother, have with all this is the *majority* of people didn’t and did not support nor vote for the Conservatives nor conservative policies throughout the “glory” years of the Thatcher revolution.

    Of course, what happens in many forums like this is a selection effect caused by debating all the time with people who agree with you on all points. The majority don’t mind paying taxes for the NHS, they like the BBC, they generally don’t want people to have guns and so forth. The things which push the buttons on Samizdata are not, generally the things which push the buttons of the general population.

    The most insidious thing about the Blair government, as Julian points out, is that for the first time in years we have a government who is actually doing what public opinion is dictating. True tyranny of the majority – a terrifying spectacle indeed.

  • ArthurDent

    The problem is that in general the ‘majority’ is silent so that no one knows what they really think. Decisions then are taken on the basis of who is shouting loadest from the wide range of single issue groups.

    At present this gets the Governement into many self inflicted difficulties as it tries to be ‘friends’ with everyone. The hunting issue is typical. Here is an example where there are very large (~5m) and vocal minorities on both sides and no possibility of any successful triangualtion. The policy is therefore to delay any action.