What Makes a Vote Count?
The day we elect our next president is over 13 months away. My inner procrastinator finds it ridiculous that I’m giving any ounce of thought to something that distant. (Really? You’re leaving your summer reading for Sept. 2, but this gets 400+ days worth of forethought?) Maybe it’s because we’ve had two rounds of Democratic debates. Maybe it’s because every fourth news notification I get is about the latest Joe Biden gaffe. For whatever reason, Nov. 3, 2020 is already on my mind.
But maybe I’m not so crazy. After all, the presidential race is by no means an isolated event. The issues important to the 2020 election aren’t new — they’ve been circulating in the public dialogue for years. As candidates talk about gun control, it feels like new mass shootings regularly make daily headlines.
As the immigration debate continues, it feels like Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) arrests take place hourly. The 2020 presidential election itself might be far off, but talking about it is not premature — it’s topical. In fact, it’s the perfect excuse for the media to start dedicating their real estate to targeted analysis of the nation’s key issues.
It’s not like I’m already trying to decide on whose name I’ll be choosing when I walk into the voting booth (or more realistically, when I fill out my absentee ballot in Keefe). Still, as candidates suggest new policies and values, I’m beginning to wonder not who I’ll be voting for, but how I’ll be voting.
Let’s face it: voting is inconvenient. Not to minimize the power of the “I Voted” sticker, but sometimes flexing our democratic muscles feels like more work than it’s worth. Ultimately, a single ballot exerts very little influence on its own. So when I do go to the trouble of voting next November, I want to maximize the value of that vote.
It seems like there’s one universal way to vote. You decide on your ideal candidate and you cast your ballot in their favor. Yet, not every voter uses this thought process. In fact, there are multiple camps of voting methods, the primary distinction lying between sincere voting and tactical voting.
Sincere voting is the process I just mentioned: choosing the candidate one finds to be the best fit for a given position. But sometimes, a voter will vote against their ideal candidate for the sake of achieving what they find to be a more important political objective. That’s tactical voting.
Tactical voting is finding new relevance in the conversation surrounding the 2020 race. Of course, Republican primary voters don’t have many options this election (President Donald Trump’s only current opponents, Bill Weld and Joe Walsh, present a few alternatives, but it’s historically and practically unlikely that a candidate would win the party nomination against a sitting president). However, the Democratic side is packed. Whittling down the Democratic race will require more deliberation from the electorate.
And the electorate’s already deliberating. A survey conducted by Monmouth University in February showed that 56% of a pool of Democratic voters “are still so rattled by the 2016 election” that they’re more interested in someone who can take Trump than someone who matches their political values. In other words, for a good portion of Democratic voters, policy and beliefs only go as far as a candidate’s “electability.” Electability has become a buzzword in the race so far. It’s the metric used to judge a candidate’s ability to win public office (independent of whether or not that candidate checks all of your boxes politically). Essentially, voting based on someone’s electability rather than your personal opinion of the candidate is the “tactic” of tactical voting. In that sense, tactical voting is made out to be an alternative to opinion-based voting — it seems to take a more impartial path.
To some, tactical voting may be righteous. Sacrificing your own democratic power for the sake of higher justice — you’re basically a superhero.
Except that as virtuous as it may sound, tactical voting has some significant logical and logistical pitfalls. Let’s start by investigating the supposed “impartiality” of tactical voting.
As opposed to sincere voting, tactical voting is taken to be more objective because instead of judging based on subjective opinion, it judges based on “strategy.” For 2020, that strategy is choosing the most electable candidate. And when we dig a bit deeper into this concept of electability, it actually turns out to not be all that objective (or even logically coherent).
First, voting on electability is a not-so-subtle tautology. The idea of electing someone on the basis that one would elect them is as circular of an argument as it gets. More importantly though, electability highlights the problem with tactical voting because it is a completely subjective term being treated as some sort of empirical game plan. In fact, there’s no single definition of electability, but instead multiple interpretations. The New York Times lists five of them.
There’s the “political revolutionary theory,” which gauges electability based on which candidate can fight radical with radical. There’s the “Obama coalition theory,” which measures a candidate’s ability to mobilize the black and Latino communities to reconstruct the Democratic base of 2012. The “Trump voters theory” quantifies electability by how successful a candidate is in winning back Trump voters who were voting blue in 2012.
As certain states find themselves shifting their political hues (e.g. Iowa and Ohio getting redder while Arizona, Georgia and Texas lean bluer), the fourth theory of electability looks at a candidate’s capacity to capitalize on these shifts. That is, whoever can officially flip a state’s color in their favor is the most electable.
Then, there is the “romance theory,” which judges electability based on maximum voter appeal.
The variety of interpretations exposes just how subjective electability really is. Electability isn’t factual — it’s debatable just like any other opinion.
So by choosing to vote for who you think is electable rather than who you really think is a good fit for the Oval Office, you essentially throw away your vote because any one of the candidates may be considered electable weighed against certain standards.
But if tactical voting won’t make your ballot worth more, what will?
Here’s my take: The most tactical way to vote is to vote informed and sincerely. Ultimately, when the votes flood in next November, the government, the media and the rest of the public are going to take it as a representation of what the American people want and to what degree they want it.
If those votes are made inauthentically (for some purpose of voting “tactically”), it deteriorates the legitimacy of the views they represent. None of us know for sure what the right way to govern is — that’s the very reason we have democracy. By processing people’s true wants and needs through voting, we can attempt to create a system that serves the public will. So when tactical voting interferes with truthful communication of that will, it undermines the whole system.
The logic behind making choices sincerely rather than strategically translates to other areas of life, too. There is almost never only one correct way to do something so we may as well follow what we genuinely believe to be the right choice. Even if our choice is wrong, at least we’ll have an authentic justification for it.
Then, the most “electable” candidate is the one you believe in most. Even if it turns out on Nov. 3, 2020 that the outcome swings the other way, your vote will still have meant more than if you just followed the “correct strategy” because it represents one less degree of support for that outcome. As far as being a drop in the democratic bucket, a sincere vote will make your ideological drop ripple just a little bit wider.