The Myth of the "Wasted" Vote

One of the most disturbing allegations to come out of the electoral reform debate was the notion that people who voted – but whose candidate didn’t win – had their vote “wasted.”

The biggest problem with this analysis is that it casts the meaning and purpose of voting in the narrowest light possible. Defined this way, the purpose of voting is only to elect your representative. Consequently, you either succeed or you fail. Once the vote is over, how you voted takes on no further meaning.

This, of course, is completely false.

Ultimately, governments may win a majority of seats in a legislature, but the margin of their victory does impact the manner and confidence with which they govern. Parties nervous about their future will look to see how they can steal votes from other parties by adopting (stealing) their ideas. In this regard, voting is a powerful signal voters can send, one that communicates quite powerfully to parties, letting them know what they should do if they want to increase their appeal to certain communities.

For a practical example, take a look at the Green Party in British Columbia. Does voting for the BC Green Party constitute a wasted vote? I believe not. I would argue the existence of the Green Party – and the significant vote that it garners – has forced the other parties to react to its agenda. Would we presently have a Liberal Party in BC that is implementing a carbon tax if it weren’t for the Green Party? I suspect not. The pressure this group brought to bear – by making clear that there is a voting constituency interested in Green matters – has been significant, even if it has not won any seats. I would argue that not one of those votes has been “wasted.” Each one has communicated a powerful message.

I can imagine that living in a riding where a specific party is unlikely to win can be frustrating – but calling those votes wasted reveals a misunderstanding of how the system can be influenced and unfairly devalues the voting process. I hope we get over using this language if we end up looking at electoral reform again…

16 thoughts on “The Myth of the "Wasted" Vote

  1. Ashley Webster

    Thank you for writing about this; you are exactly right. To add to what you have said:Part of the myth of, as you put it “those whose candidate didn't win – had their vote wasted” is that they are also unrepresented. This is also false. The candidate that won is everyone's representative. I did not vote for Spencer Herbert but he is still my MLA.I liked what you said about my vote influencing the positions of the other parties. Between elections the party lines do and should become more fluid.

  2. mjbednar

    We can debate if a vote is wasted or not. I look at a meaningful in one way: Could my vote make a difference in helping someone get elected? Essentially, does it make a difference if I actually show up at the polling station to cast a ballot? For example federally, it does not make a difference if I choose to vote for the NDP or Green Party candidate. I can stay home at the potential outcome won't make a difference. Even if I choose to vote Conservative, it won't make a difference. The probability that a Liberal candidate will win in my riding will be extremely high. There is no point in me voting. If one tries to guilt me into voting, it won't work. I don't care. If one mentions that I don't have the right to complain, I won't care either. The politicians won't listen to me anyway.

  3. Facebook User

    I hear the “wasted vote” term used more interchangeably with the “strategic vote” — when you vote for someone not because he's your favourite candidate, but rather the candidate who has the best shot at beating your least favourite candidate. Like when you vote NDP in order to keep out the Liberals but you're really more aligned with Green.It's still a misnomer because the vote is counted just as much as the other votes are counted but it wasn't representative of your “real” choice. One wonders how many NDP and Liberal voters were actually Green allies in that particular, purely hypothetical example! (Probably not enough to elect a Green candidate.)

  4. CharlesGYF

    I assume this is directed mostly at NDP supporters who criticize Green Party supporters for “wasting” their vote? Or is this directed at Greens?

  5. Steph D

    There's a big piece missing in your argument, and that's party financing. Each vote brings in dollars to the party that receives it. So while it might not have an impact on the election outcome this time around, the funding that party will receive thanks to that vote will help it increase its presence in the next election. It's a long process, but in that sense, especially with smaller parties, every vote really does count.

  6. david_a_eaves

    Wasn't really directed at any political party – more at advocates of BC-STV who used the “wasted” vote argument.I have occasionally (very rarely) meet dejected Greens who talk about their vote being wasted – but most actually believe their vote matters (which is nice – and something I like about Green voters).I do dislike the way that NDP supporters often assume that Green voters are automatically people that would vote for them… I think the Green's are pulling in people who don't normally vote and are disappointed with the major parties.

  7. Ashley Webster

    In response to Steph D: the financing you mention only happens at the Federal level. Provincial parties get absolutely nothing for your vote.As for the idea that Green supporters would otherwise vote NDP: NO WAY. My choice was between Green and Liberal. You couldn't pay me enough to vote NDP under the current system.

  8. Cory Horner

    Perhaps you don't understand what it is like to never elect anyone. Superficial promises which are never acted upon don't really make me feel better — they're simply cheap attempts to buy my vote.At least federally we get to allocate some funding, but voting provincially is about as useful as playing the lottery. Let's see how far I get when I contact my NDP MLA urging her to support an increase in the Carbon Tax. When not a single person in the legislature is speaking about my issue of the day, how can I feel “represented”? I have contacted my representative in the past and gotten her to change her vote — but that is only possible when the issue is of minimal importance.Even though i've voted in every election, it seems more meaningful to contribute to falling voter turnout than lend any credibility to the current system.

  9. mjbednar

    I think it was EKOS which polled in the last federal election that the second choice of Green voters would be approximately NDP 40%, Liberal 40%, and Conservative 20%.

  10. mjbednar

    I understand that several political parties get money for each vote receive. I think that is a great idea. However, I would like for political parties to receive about one percent of seats for every percent of votes they receive. This can be done through STV, MMP, List, or other proportional voting systems.I won't be voting just so some party can receive a donation from the taxpayers.

  11. Robert Ballantyne

    The concept of the 'wasted vote' was an attempt to package one of the ideas relating to BC-STV. In that context, the word 'wasted' was a way of putting some spin on the notion that a single vote would be better if it were to contribute to the process in a new and more complex system. Your essay did raise an important question about elections. Is the vote a poll to determine voter-preference, or is it the process by which the voter contributes to trying to elect a candidate? Since most people don't seem to really care much about our elections, probably most voters simply vote for their first choice. In other words, it is a poll… that also elects a representative. If this is correct, then your assertion is likely true that votes for the losing candidates will signal the government that a significant number of people care about the losing parties' issues. If voters' main objective was seeing their issues prevail, then there would be much more strategic voting, and the election-as-a-poll would be less meaningful.If we look at the last BC election as a poll of voter-preferences, what can be learned? Almost no one has attended to the most significant message. In my opinion, the most powerful voter-statement is contained in statistic that showed that 52% of the population did not vote.The news media are clear that, as a result of the election, the Liberal party has a majority government. The Premier claims that he has a mandate from the people. Looking at the actual vote, the first statement is true, and the second statement is nonsense. Over half of the people in this province did not vote for the Conservatives, and therefore they have not delivered a mandate to the government.Since a vote is merely a selection among the various options provided, and the voter has no place to indicate her or his reasons for making that selection, we can only look at the results and try to guess at those reasons. So, here are a couple of my guesses.• None of the candidate parties in the elections presented a platform that spoke to the interests and concerns of a majority of the electorate• In a world where there are people who would fight and die for the right to vote, the people of British Columbia are not sufficiently concerned about any of the possible results of the election to bother voting.If my guesses are correct, then it probably doesn’t matter to the electorate who ends up prevailing in Victoria. The other part of this is that it possible for one of the existing parties, or a new party, to discover the passions of the 52% of non-voters, and displace the old guard. This is not bad news, is it?

  12. opendna

    When arguing whether or not a vote is “wasted”, we should think about what it means to “waste” a vote. If one voted for Nader in Florida in 2000, was it a “wasted” vote? Not if we use the term to mean “having no consequence”. However, if the author of this blog is correct, we should be able to say that a vote for the Green Party in that election encouraged President GW Bush to be a more environmentally sensitive president. (A dubious suggestion, at best.) Should we agree that a vote is not a “wasted” vote even when it results in the “worst” of three possible results? This is the Prisoner's Dilemma in a voting booth.It's a little weird to read an argument that voters for a party which advocates heavy regulation of the economy might also vote for the pro-growth, pro-business, anti-regulation party. The BC Green Party's platform promises to do a great number of things which are simply incompatible with the BC Liberal Party: Reduce our economy’s dependence on growth and ever- increasing consumption; Eliminate sources of pollution; Increase taxes on industries and individual practices that cause pollution; Get the province off oil and gas; Halt all river-based energy generation projects pending stricter environmental assessment; Require methane capture and power generation plants at all wastewater and landfill sites; Phase out all power imports from fossil fuels or other greenhouse gas emitting sources; Require that BCs short- and long-term energy needs be fully met first, before foreign energy sales take place; Prohibit the use of food products other than local food waste products for the production of fuels. (source:…)Perhaps the problem is that the author has fallen for the “swing voter” myth. //Voters don't so much swing as bounce on a long elastic tether. They may abstain from voting when they're unhappy, but they don't necessarily switch parties. Studying patterns of voter migration in the three most recent federal elections in Canada and the three most recent provincial elections in B.C. provides significant evidence that voters maintain long-term political preferences, a kind of 'tethered partisanship', and are less prone to float and drift between political preferences than often thought. Political strategists haven't yet taken this lesson to heart, as much political campaigning is still directed at the elusive 'swing voter', and much less at getting the 'affinity voter' sufficiently motivated and into the voting booth.// Source: Estimating Voter Migration in Canada Using Generalized Maximum Entropy, by Werner Antweiler, UBC.…Antwieler's studies reveal that mobilization of partisan voters is more important to electoral success than persuading swing voters: disaffected voters are more likely to stay home than to vote for another party.To the extent that Antweiler's partisan models show migration between parties, they reflect case-specific results from the 2001, 2005 and 2009 BC provincial elections: an increase in Green Party voters seriously impacts the NDP and only slightly impacts the Liberal Party. In many cases when the Green Party won over 8% of the vote, the Liberal Party won the seat with a low-40%s plurality votes. Those instances are numerous enough to have determined the formation of the provincial government.In the 2009 BC provincial election, the Liberal government was formed by 49 MLAs and the minority NDP was formed by 36 MLAs. (All numbers from [Saanich North and the Islands] the LIB won (45.26%) over the NDP (43.83%) and GRN (10.91%). In [Oak Bay-Gordon Head] the LIB won with (46.64%) over the NDP (44.45%) and GRN(8.91%). In [Vancouver-Fairview], the LIB won (47.22%) over the NDP (42.16%) and GRN (9.43%). In [Burnaby North], the LIB won (48.7%) over the NDP (44.42%) and the GRN (6.88%).In [Burnaby-Lougheed], the LIB won (49.02%) over the NDP (44.36%) and the GRN (6.62%).In [Kamloops-North Thompson], the LIB won (47.2%) over the NDP (44.43%) and the GRN (6.62%).In [Penticton], the LIB won (44.11%) over the NDP (31.19%), the GRN (15.52%) and the CON (8.87%).In [Vernon-Monashee], the LIB won (37.71%) over the NDP (31.68%), the GRN (16.33%) and the CON (8.17%).In [Boundary-Similkameen], the LIB won (37.58%) over the NDP (32.84%), the CON (20.17%) and the GRN (9.41%).The fact is that if the NDP and GRN had run a combined slate (or merged, a la the federal Reform/PC), nine seats could have switched from LIB to NDP/GRN. The government would probably have been formed by the NDP/GRN with 45 seats vs 40 LIB. This is at least the third BC election in a row where this is the case, and yet there has been no movement by either party towards a union. If the author of this blog is correct about parties responding to electoral pressure, the NDP/GRN union should have already occurred (particularly in light of the success of the federal Reform/PC merger).Now, we *could* argue that the Liberal Leader Gordon Campbell's “green” policies are influenced by the large numbers of voters who swing between the NDP and Green Party. It might make more sense, however, to look to his close relationship with California's “green” Republican governor and maybe the pro-business nature of BC's “Carbon Tax”, which virtually exempts all business and while placing the full burden on gasoline-powered commuters.

  13. MikeGruz

    Back to the issue of the victor in an election adopting or “stealing” the contender's issues to ensure reelection, you might be interested to check out Tracy Sulkin's “Issue Politics in Congress.” Of course it's a book on American government, but much of what the author deals with is the idea of issue “uptake” (as opposed to “stealing,” but similar concept).A very quantitative-based political science book, but well worth the read whether or not one is a practitioner of that field.

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