Apologies if this is a bad forum for this question. Given the historic links between politics and philosophy, I thought it might be a worthwhile question. Otherwise, downvote away :)

There are elections coming up and due to changes in the political landscape over the past few years, I am no longer sure who to vote for.

Essentially I see three options:

  • I can vote for a mainstream party with a strong likelihood of doing well, and whose policies I consider the "least worst". On the plus side, this means my vote helps stave off even more undesirable policy, but on the negative side that party will go on claiming that my vote represents a "mandate", which it does not.

  • I can vote for a minority party whose policies I largely support, but who are unlikely to do well. On the plus side I have given a mandate to the party I support the most, but on the negative side I have effectively wasted my vote.

  • I can spoil my ballot. On the plus side this is a good indicator of my genuine dissatisfaction with the political system and state of politics, but on the negative side it's even more of a wasted vote than one for a minority party.

There's more than one election coming up, and they use different electoral systems: some use proportional representation, others first past the post.

I was curious to know if there was a philosophical answer as to which is the best of the bad options?

  • From an individualistic 'rational' perspective, voting in broad anonymous elections is currently strictly dominated by doing something else, like taking a nap. This is because the chances of your vote making the difference are minute. However, this doesn't answer to the situation where you think the act of voting is more fun than taking a nap. I am sure that there are more philosophical perspectives (perhaps including 'duty' or self-fulfilment, but hopefully not Kant). – user3164 May 7 '14 at 9:32
  • @Watson I have to say I've never found the "there's only one vote that makes the difference" argument intelligible. I understand it's role in certain proofs about voting systems, but in real life it seems absurd (for some reason I can't quite pin down). – Lucas May 7 '14 at 16:02
  • @Lucas Haha. OK. Let me know (when you do pin it down). (Here's a bit more of it: plato.stanford.edu/entries/free-rider/#Dem .) – user3164 May 7 '14 at 16:05
  • @Lucas Perhaps it feels wrong to not-vote because not-voting is frowned upon. And being frowned upon doesn't do you much good. So, if you stay at home napping, you have to make sure nobody's missing you at the voting booth. And you have to lie at birthday parties. And at BBQ's. So, I guess non-voting can be a bit of a hassle. – user3164 May 7 '14 at 16:17
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    let us continue this discussion in chat – Lucas May 7 '14 at 17:58

There is no universal answer to this. How bad is the most undesirable party that might win if you don't vote against them? If the consequences of them gaining power are dire, which they often are, there is a strong motivation to vote for the other "least bad" option.

The question then becomes the exact nature of the motivation. Money in your pocket is clearly quite different to the undesirable party being opposed to your existence or remaining in the country, for example. This is an existential point that is difficult to generalize about because it depends so much on circumstance.

Based on the assumption that nothing too terrible will happen if the most undesirable party gets in, you would then be more concerned with how well the democracy is working.

It could be the case that the two mainstream parties genuinely appeal to the majority of voters, and yours is a minority viewpoint. In that case, and considering that you are not being oppressed or put in danger, you may simply have to accept that no matter what you do it is unlikely to have much effect. Given that there seems little point not voting with your conscience, so at least that can be clear.

You could take action beyond just voting. Join your preferred party, campaign for it and try to increase its popularity. If the democratic system is broken and makes this unlikely to work you could consider fighting the system. Fighting can range from low level civil disobedience to a full blown civil war. You asked to add the assumption that the democracy was "western style" and therefore not too bad, but we have seen that even western democracies can result in extreme things happening. Staring or joining wars, or setting up a vast secret surveillance network, for example. One of the key ways that such systems avoid citizens rising up against them is by making life generally "okay" for the majority, so they don't feel strongly enough to act.

With that in mind we come back to an existential problem. In fact Sartre mentioned a similar example in Existentialism and Humanism, where a young French man was trying to decide if he should look after his elderly mother or join the war effort (in the 1940s). Each individual must decide for themselves how bad things are, how much they care about what is happening, and what the appropriate action to take is.

Sadly we have reached a point where mass protest is fairly ineffective, but on the other hand the rise of fairly far right parties in Europe (UKIP, Le Penn) and the US (Tea Party) suggests that movements can grow into influential political forces. It's notable that all these groups are based on anger and often hatred though.

You could also decide to simply accept that you are a minority and that true democracy dictates the majority rules. This is rarely the case of course, otherwise we would suffer the tyranny of the majority.

  • I had a nasty feeling this was the answer. Does it help if we assume this is a Western Democracy (so "bad" is not "terrible") and that I am an "average" citizen (so the consequences are not life-changing)? – Bob Tway May 7 '14 at 16:22
  • So wouldnt principled abstention be a universal answer as to not compromise the integrity of your own wisdom by dirtying your hands by voting for the "least bad" option instead of the correct option? – musingsofacigarettesmokingman May 7 '14 at 17:10
  • Abstention seems like a waste when you could offer your vote to the party you most agree with. At least that would slightly increase their visibility and political standing, perhaps leading to more influence in the future. – ああああああああああああああああああああああああああああああ May 7 '14 at 20:41
  • Thank you for your edits, and for an excellent, comprehensive answer. – Bob Tway May 7 '14 at 21:13
  • +1, except I think saying the Tea Party is "based on... hatred" is going too far. (You may disagree with them, you might find that point of view wrong or even obnoxious, there might be hateful individuals within it, but that doesn't mean they are based in "hatred".) I don't know enough about the European parties, for them, it might be the case. – James Kingsbery May 7 '14 at 21:33

Socrates advocated a principled abstinence from political life based on the assumption that time spent engaged in political life was a distraction from pursuing philosophy. So a fourth option could be: you dont have to vote at all.

  • But also, people who didn't participate in the political life were considered idiots. See here: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Idiot#Etymology – iphigenie May 7 '14 at 9:30
  • Heh. Sadly, if I took a principled abstinence from politics, it would only be because time spent engaged in political life would be a distraction from pursuing video games. So I'm not sure I can really stand on the same pedestal as Socrates :) – Bob Tway May 7 '14 at 9:31
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    But would anybody ever consider Socrates an idiot? And maybe time spent playing video games is time better spent than time engaged in political life? – musingsofacigarettesmokingman May 7 '14 at 9:34
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    @iphigenie You seem to have something there that might become an answer itself. Why not go for it? plato.stanford.edu/entries/free-rider, but also plato.stanford.edu/entries/free-rider/#Dem – user3164 May 7 '14 at 13:38
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    @iphigenie, socrates neglected political life & pursued philosophic discussions with the athenians to try to convince them not to care for wealth or their bodies, but for how their souls could be in the best possible condition, (one of the most altruistic acts possible) in the belief that its more important to be a good person than a good citizen, for they would be one and the same in the best possible regime. Democracy can only work if smart people are allowed to do as they choose, at which point it would cease to be a democracy and be more akin to something like Aristotles "politaia". – musingsofacigarettesmokingman May 7 '14 at 16:20

I suppose that prior to answering that question of yours, you'll have to figure out what you think your system is and how you feel about that.

Should you think that what you live in is actually a democracy, not an ochlocracy where people are potential voters and idiots (as I tried to narrow down in the comments to krue.ron.taiepa's answer, idiot as used in ancient times, see here), then the mainstream party seems to have hit a nerve and to be actually what most people can agree on. However, the probability that people in your system (as well as in mine and every other system) choose what is best for their own pockets and mainly in their own interest is high, and it is possible that another party has a far more rational election manifesto. Fortunately or not, it is for you to decide that. Should you come to the conclusion that whatever you vote for is not good enough or that the system is hopeless, than you still have option 3, which is to vote void. Your vote gets counted, and maybe interpreted as the voice of somebody who's malcontent with all the options, but unfortunately there is no way of discerning whether you voted void on purpose or because you don't know how to do it right. In Germany, the percentage of votes that don't count normally don't show up in statistics.

So what do we do? I guess if you find your system deficient, it's up to you as to anybody to improve it. Not voting is, as I see it, at least as bad as voting blindly. If we want the fruit of democracy, we should cultivate it. Yes, your vote doesn't really count. But there are other ways to participate, and we all know that, we just tend to forget it. Don't just throw your vote in some box every once in a while. If you think you know better than most or many or some, then go and convince somebody (and I mean in the good way of "convince", make them see it instead of forcing your opinion on them).

The chance that the majority of a people is right is, as I see it, not very high. Hegel wrote on the common sense (Encyclopedia § 63), and he wasn't praising it, and if the majority votes in its own favour, how can we expect them to be voting for the good of the community? I suppose from here you go right to criticism of liberal theories. Maybe there's a point to ancient suffrage, maybe as long as we have to work to keep up our standards and as long not everybody who's allowed to vote can vote, there's only choosing between bad and worse.

  • I do see that my answer is subjective and not based on philosophical expertise. So far I didn't think of anything I might have read on that, and I will consider deleting this is somebody finds a less subjective answer. – iphigenie May 7 '14 at 16:42
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    "Yes, your vote doesn't really count." No, your vote does really count. But that's all it does. It merely counts. :) – user3164 May 7 '14 at 18:17

Vote for the minority party. You support their policies, they need your vote the most, and your vote will be a higher percentage contribution to their total vote than if you voted for a majority party. Also, even if they don't win, your support will send a message to the major parties that want your vote next time.

Only by people voting for minority parties can they have a chance of winning in future, so don't succumb to fatalism and give your vote only to a party with a current chance of winning.

If you really wouldn't want any majority or minority party, then spoil your ballot.


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