Bryan Caplan  

Throw Your Vote Away - Vote for a Second Party

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The standard argument against voting for third parties is that "You're throwing your vote away."  There's no point voting for someone who can't win.

Now consider how this applies to Singapore, where even second parties have no real prospect of winning.  Suppose a Singaporean says he's voting for the Workers' Party.  Isn't it just as valid (or invalid) to tell him that "You're throwing your vote away," as it is to say the same to an American who says he's voting for the Libertarian Party?

Valid or not, the "Why vote for a party that can't win?" argument is probably an important reason why the opposition does so poorly in Singapore.  The upshot is that even in democracy, there may be equilibrium where one party gets on top, voters don't bother with rival parties because they don't think they can win, and this resignation in turn becomes self-fulfilling.  Hmm.

P.S. When you read what the Workers' Party has to say about organ trading, you too may be delighted that their party is a joke.

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COMMENTS (16 to date)
Isaac Crawford writes:

Of course the flip side I use is, "Why vote for a party if you know they're going to win?" In either case, the vote is useless. The way I see it, at least voting shows that there are people out there that have libertarian leanings, it's hard to know otherwise...

Isaac Crawford

Brandon Berg writes:

Simple: There's no trade-off. If you're voting for a third party, you give up the chance to influence the decision between the top two parties (well, not really, because the odds of doing so are very small, but that's the argument). If you vote for a second party, you don't give up anything, because it's a foregone conclusion that the first party will win.

And I don't need to know the Singapore Workers Party's position on organ trading to be glad they're a joke. I can tell they're up to no good just from the name.

david writes:

Brandon: that People's Action Party probably sounds pretty dang suspicious, too ;)

It won its first GE on a Communist platform, remember that ;p

kebko writes:

It wouldn't be fair to allow the rich to eat a 5 star restaurants while the poor survive on rice & beans. Rationing of food may require long daily queues & occasional starvation, but at least the starvation is experienced without regard to wealth. Passing our emaciated neighbors in the streets reminds us that we are all brothers. We are all in this together.
Now farmers work for the public good as a community. If we allowed the rich to exploit the farmers by purchasing food directly, there would certainly be much instability in the farming villages.
Unified hunger is the more noble path.

Sima Qian writes:

Not quite. Voting here is mandatory. Even if malaise grips you and you think that parties other than the PAP have no real prospect of winning -- you're still required by law to cast a vote as long as your ward is being contested. This limits the "stay-at-home" effect: since one has to make the effort to get out to the polling station and vote anyway, one might as well vote for one's true preferences.

The exception to this is the reverse effect to the one you're describing: because second parties have no real prospect of winning, voters who might otherwise vote PAP (that is, their "true" preference) if the outcome were uncertain would choose, instead, to use their vote in a more meaningful way by casting it for the opposition. The rationale being that, since victory is assured for the ruling party, casting a "chastening vote" to keep the PAP on its toes can't hurt. It has the salutary effect of keening the ruling party's sense of its own mortality.

There's of course the phenomenon of the "spoilt vote" -- votes that do not meaningfully indicate a preference. Some are cast to register one's displeasure at the futility of the whole exercise, but my sense is that this is not an important factor in the opposition's poor showing.

Eye on Singapore writes:

Districts that have high vote totals for non-PAP parties can get screwed in the allocation of government built goodies as punishment. So by voting against the PAP you are voting for collective punishment of your neighborhood.

Brandon Berg writes:

I stand corrected. I'd be hard-pressed to choose between the two based on the name alone.

Run-off elections would really change things. For example, if we had a run-off rule in the 2000 presidential election, Al Gore probably would have been President.

Run-offs would be interesting in that people could vote for the Libertarian or other third party candidate without fear of swinging the election from their number two choice to their number three. But really it's not going to help Libertarians much. Their positions, once people really know them, are overall just too unpopular. I don't think you'll get too far running on abolishing old age social security so we could go back to the good old days of widespread severe poverty among the elderly.

Kurbla writes:

In simple situations, I do not try to maximize my own impact on the political decision while following the letter of the democratic procedure. Instead, I express my true opinion, trying to follow the spirit of democracy - and I leave to whole democratic process to draw consequences in short and especially long terms. Whole idea about "maximizing my impact" is somehow ... not the best.

And what happens in Singapore? I believe that there is some social pressure that usually follows de facto uniformity in all areas of life. "What do you think, that you are something special?"

guthrie writes:

I guess my question would be does this 'resignation' you suggest curtail debate? A while back Russ had Joseph Ellis on EconTalk talking about the founding and what have you, and if I’m not mistaken (and I'm paraphrasing here), he spoke positively about the formation of the two party system because it ensured there would always be discussion on issues, and dissent would be at least tolerated if not openly encouraged.

As long as Libertarians have the chance to voice their position and are allowed to try to persuade people, (i.e. to put your ideas on the market, so to speak) then what does it matter if there are two parties or a thousand? If Singaporians can debate and dissent (and from your previous postings on this, it seems they can and do), then does it really matter if there’s only one dominant party?

What premium do Singapore residents place on things like ‘free speech’, ‘individual voice’, or ‘independent ideas’? Does the average Singapore resident ‘need’ to ‘have a say’ in their government, or are they more nonchalant? Bryan or Sima or Eye, would you care to comment on this?

I think the aversion we have as Americans to ‘single party rule’ harks back to a time when a Monarchy dictated policy and tolerated no dissent. If the PAP punished dissenters the way they punish public gum chewers, then there would be a problem in my mind, but it doesn’t sound like that’s the case.

BTW, the ‘throw your vote away’ argument usually comes from die-hard partisans who are afraid of losing a particular election (I was once one of these die-hards). But if people really wanted to vote for Bush Sr. instead of Perot, or Gore instead of Nader, then those elections would have turned out different. The problem isn’t the 3rd party; generally it’s the losing parties’ message. If the Libertarian party wants to win general elections, then that would mean the party (or at least the candidate) would have to become appealing to the most people. The question then, to me at least, is that what Libertarians want?

Garrett Schmitt writes:

My favorite instance of the throw-your-vote-away conundrum was the 2002 French Presidential Election

In the first round no candidate got more than 20%, as 47% of individuals "wasted" their vote on 13 parties which indiidually did not get more than 7% of the vote and stood little chance of making the 2nd round.

As a result, the far-right National Front party edged out the most competitive left-wing party (the Socialists) to make the runoff against Chirac's mainstream right-wing party.

Chirac's party won 82% in the runoff, yet voter participation increased almost 9% over the 1st round of the election! Apparently even more votes were "wasted" in what should have been a foregone conclusion with a little prior polling.

Ted Craig writes:

Couldn't one ask the same questions about Massachusetts?

Dezakin writes:

Really, a scholarly economics blog makes a post such as this without any mention of Duvergers law?'s_law

John Barrdear writes:

To extend the idea of runoff elections, I'm interested to read what Bryan or Arnold think of preferential voting in the sense of instant-runoff elections (e.g. as used for the Australian House of Representatives).

WCU 456 writes:

Couldn't voting for a third party come from the lack of confidence in the other two candidates?

I vote for the person who I think is the most qualified, most prepared, and who I think would make a better president to meet the needs of everyone in America. Sure, voting for a third party could be viewed as "throwing your vote away" but why vote for someone you don't want? To me, it's like voting for the person you know is gonna win even if you don't agree with all of their ideas and values and policies. I say just let people vote for who they want. It doesn't matter who as long as they are happy with voting for that person.

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