Political Philosophy - who to vote for


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?

Bob Tway

Posted 2014-05-07T08:56:11.150

Reputation: 743

Question was closed 2016-01-16T21:45:51.853

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). – None – 2014-05-07T09:32:53.577

@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 – 2014-05-07T16:02:06.733

@Lucas Haha. OK. Let me know (when you do pin it down). (Here's a bit more of it: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/free-rider/#Dem .)

– None – 2014-05-07T16:05:29.480

@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. – None – 2014-05-07T16:17:45.590

@Watson Well, ultimately, I agree with iphigenie's comments on the answer below. I get the free riding argument, for which it seems possible to consider that probability of an outcome given your attendance. It's the talk of there being a single pivotal vote that determines the result that I don't think that makes sense. I see SEP explains it like this too, but I don't just don't buy it. Just because all the votes have the property of determining the result of the election doesn't mean that any one of them should individually... Still not quite pinned down ;) closer perhaps? – Lucas – 2014-05-07T16:51:42.870

@Lucas Perhaps what is beneath your worry is that my proposed stance towards elections isn't an equilibrium strategy. And you would be right, but we have the empirical fact that elections do not entice other people to equilibrium ('rational') play. Given their 'irrational' play you needn't vote. (In equilibrium play, you, and everybody else, would flip a carefully weighted coin at home to decide on going out to vote or not. Much less people would vote than the numbers we observe.) NB: I just don't buy it, is a difficult position to argue with. – None – 2014-05-07T17:13:41.800

@Watson Perhaps a drawing from a very large bundle of straws would be best. My issue isn't the game theory, I'm mainly disputing the bit where you say (and you're not alone) that "the chances of your vote making the difference are minute" (emphasis kind-of yours). I don't think doing the game theory requires you to be able to identify a particular vote that makes the difference. This comic is becoming relevant http://www.smbc-comics.com/?id=3336#comic ;)

– Lucas – 2014-05-07T17:34:59.653

@Lucas Well, it's a ceteris paribus thing. Would your vote, given all other votes have made a difference? The ex-ante probability is usually very small (two or more parties, large electorate). Does that make your vote special? No, it is only special in the sense that we are evaluating your options.... – None – 2014-05-07T17:56:08.170

@Lucas But you are right in another sense. You can only identify a 'sealing' vote afterwards by assuming some kind of ordering (e.g. time-ordering, as in the SEP). But any choice of ordering is arbitrary, so there is no identifiable 'sealing' vote. (Would you still vote if the winner was already determined by a counting of the previous votes?) – None – 2014-05-07T17:56:30.490


let us continue this discussion in chat

– Lucas – 2014-05-07T17:58:59.357

I personally think that the right approach is to vote for the one that reminds you the least of Hitler. So in essence don't vote tories ever. – Neil Meyer – 2015-02-11T12:11:39.037



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.


Posted 2014-05-07T08:56:11.150

Reputation: 213

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 – 2014-05-07T16:22:03.707

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 – 2014-05-07T17:10:50.637

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 – 2014-05-07T20:41:07.890

Thank you for your edits, and for an excellent, comprehensive answer. – Bob Tway – 2014-05-07T21:13:42.253

+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 – 2014-05-07T21:33:54.923


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.


Posted 2014-05-07T08:56:11.150

Reputation: 1 457

But also, people who didn't participate in the political life were considered idiots. See here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Idiot#Etymology

– iphigenie – 2014-05-07T09:30:18.080

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 – 2014-05-07T09:31:22.327

1But 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 – 2014-05-07T09:34:32.443

@krue.ron.taiepa Yes, in that regard, in that narrow sense, I would. Living in a democracy brings not only rights, but also duties. Your duty is to be well informed and voting for the good of the majority. If you don't do that for selfish reasons (and living a philosophical life is selfish), and you thereby neglecting those duties, then you're an idiot (in that narrow sense). – iphigenie – 2014-05-07T13:25:01.980


@iphigenie You seem to have something there that might become an answer itself. Why not go for it? http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/free-rider/, but also http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/free-rider/#Dem

– None – 2014-05-07T13:38:50.257

@Watson I wish I could answer this. This strongly affects my personal life, and I don't have good answers, only strong opinions. I am therefore very much interested in other people's answers. – iphigenie – 2014-05-07T13:50:44.563

@iphigenie socrates also said when it comes to peoples opinions, whos should we care about? that of the majority, or that of the wise? do you think that the group of people that form "the majority", in any modern democracy make it their duty to be well informed, (or are even half as well informed as yourself) so do you trust the majority who "vote for the good of the majority" (who are not half as qualified as yourself to vote) to make important decisions that impact your life? "Strong opinions" are useless, the purpose of philosophy is to replace opinions with knowledge. – musingsofacigarettesmokingman – 2014-05-07T15:36:04.867

@krue.ron.taiepa You're confusing something. I did not claim that the majority of people nowadays knows what's best. Quite to the contrary I'm of the opinion that most people nowadays are also idiots, in that narrow sense. They do not make it their duty, though it certainly is. That's no argument against my point, being that we have to vote especially if we think we're wiser than the rest. – iphigenie – 2014-05-07T16:01:45.077

2@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 – 2014-05-07T16:20:05.957

@krue.ron.taiepa Well, look at that, we're talking about the same thing after all. Just wrote an answer, check it out I don't think there's actually a point of discussion between you and me. – iphigenie – 2014-05-07T16:36:02.140


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.


Posted 2014-05-07T08:56:11.150

Reputation: 2 426

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 – 2014-05-07T16:42:48.837

1"Yes, your vote doesn't really count." No, your vote does really count. But that's all it does. It merely counts. :) – None – 2014-05-07T18:17:39.173


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.

Paul S

Posted 2014-05-07T08:56:11.150

Reputation: 11

Not sure why this answer is so poorly rated, the arguments seem sound to me. – Chris Sunami supports Monica – 2015-11-23T19:55:02.480