June 5, 2017    4 minute read

Tactical Voting Undermines Democratic Elections

Democratic Justice    June 5, 2017    4 minute read

Tactical Voting Undermines Democratic Elections

One of the biggest talking points in the UK’s snap general election is ‘tactical voting’ – that is, misreporting preferences on purpose in order to attain a more favourable outcome than would otherwise have been possible. Whether it be UKIP voters switching to the Conservative party or the ‘progressive’ vote being split amongst the Labour party, the Liberal Democrats, the SNP and the Greens, the phrase ‘tactical voting’ routinely emerges in conversations about the general election. What are the implications of this?

Social Choice Theory and Voting Systems

Social Choice theory is useful for understanding the nature of electoral rules and the features of voting systems. Social Choice theory is “a theoretical framework for analysis of combining individual opinions, preferences, interests, or welfares to reach a collective decision or social welfare in some sense.” It has been applied extensively to voting rules (but is not limited to them).

A crucial result in Social Choice theory is the Gibbard-Satterthwaite Theorem. It states that, if a social choice function (voting rule) has three or more possible outcomes, if it is onto (which means all the outcomes are possible through some combination of preferences), if it is strategyproof/truthful (meaning no agents will misreport their preferences) and if it has an unrestricted domain (so no restrictions imposed upon preferences), then the voting rule will be dictatorial (meaning that one agent will be able to dictate the social outcome to all others).

Obviously, there cannot be a dictatorship if democracy is sought. Therefore, it is usually one of the others that is sacrificed and, normally, it is the ‘strategyproof/truthful’ condition. This is why countries across the world experience ‘tactical voting’ in the sense that people see the potential to improve their outcomes by casting their vote for an outcome/candidate that is not their true preference (i.e lying). In many ways, this is a tragic and negative result – democratic decision-making seems to have its limits. Since current conceptions of voting systems largely fall within the scope of the Gibbard-Satterthwaite Theorem, it may be worth viewing ‘tactical voting’ from a moral perspective now.

The Morality of Tactical Voting

The fact that individuals feel the need to misreport their preferences in order to improve their outcomes is tragic in itself. However, when there are complaints of dishonesty in politics across the world, it is ironic that the source of dishonesty can be traced back to the voters who misrepresented their preferences to elect those same politicians to public offices. The idea that the price of voters’ honesty and integrity is the marginally increased likelihood of sending a particular person to parliament is an intrinsic fault in voting systems.

Although many organisations purport to offer the ‘correct’ way in which to tactically vote to increase the likelihood of a relatively preferable outcome vs an undesirable outcome, calculating the exact and optimal way in which to vote (given the actions of other voters) has been proven to be a computationally complex problem and, as such, organisations such as Compass who offer a ‘Progressive Alliance’ can only offer ‘approximations’. In many ways, therefore, tactical voting is merely gambling by another name whose only certainty is the surrender of truth.

What Does It Mean for Society? 

There is a paradox that manifests itself in tactical voting. Essentially, if people think they can improve their outcomes by misreporting their preferences (e.g. by voting Labour instead of Liberal Democrat, Conservative instead of UKIP, SNP instead of Labour, Liberal Democrat instead of Green etc.), it may not actually improve their outcomes.

If politicians seeking election to public office are aware that voters are considering tactical voting, they also have incentive to lie about their own intentions and positions to take advantage of voters’ inclination to misreport their preferences. This then means that, given that voters engage in tactical voting and politicians also have the incentive to lie about their positions in order to gain more votes, a voter could actually end up with a worse outcome by voting ‘tactically’ than if they had voted truthfully. Tactical voting can also serve to reinforce the dishonesty that pervades politics.

Concluding Remark

Clearly, therefore, although tactical voting seems to be what many are considering doing in the UK’s snap General Election, this could actually lead to worse outcomes for those who choose to engage in it since politicians now have increased incentive to lie about their positions, given that they know that voters are considering tactical voting. At any rate, the ongoing discussions of and calls for tactical voting expose serious flaws in voting systems and highlights the ways in which various entities seek to exploit these flaws.

Ultimately, so-called ‘tactical voting’ indisputably undermines democracy and democratic justice.

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