Voting: Strategy

This article is in response to debates about how people should vote; specifically, if you should “throw away” your vote for unlikely candidates or if you should “vote your conscience.”

This article is based on the political notion that the purpose of voting is to give you a chance to influence the politics of a country so that it serves your interests. This is a fundamental notion of any democratic system and pretty much at the heart of the philosophy behind the US government.

If you are more interested in voting ethics you can read this.

Step 1: Decide what your goals are

For any strategy to be useful, you first need to have goals. You should rank them from the most important to the least. This way if a strategy doesn’t serve them all, you can focus on one that serves your higher objectives first.

I’m not going to say what those goals should be. That’s for you to figure out, but I’ll give mine as an example.

  1. Support candidates for the government I feel I can trust
    1. They can make wise decisions
    2. They show compassion for others
    3. They are honest about themselves
    4. They show organizational competence
  2. Pursue policy goals I think would be good for myself and others
    1. Avoid war & promote peace
    2. Respect broad civil liberties
    3. Prosperity for the largest number of people possible
    4. Security (including military, police, public health, etc…)
  3. Support new ideas and diversity

Step 2: List your choices

I think this step is pretty self-explanatory. That said, I encourage you to not limit yourself to choices you instinctively consider but to do a little digging and see what else is out there. Even if you already know what you think you want, go through the process and see if the reasoned analysis matches your gut instinct.

I recommend you make a simple spreadsheet and list the candidates. Then make columns for the assessments were about to make. Also, put a link to their campaign website in one of the columns for reference.

Step 3: Consider how each candidate matches your goals

The more you can learn about each candidate, the better you can make an assessment here. But what you want to do is assign some kind of ranking as to how close they are to your agenda. Try to rank them 1 to 5 with 1 being a great choice to 5 being horrible. Remember to keep your goal order in mind here.

Step 4: Consider how likely each is to win

Honestly, this is tough to do, but you don’t really have to be correct to help with decision making. There is also no shortage of websites that make a habit of trying to make these predictions. You can rank them like this to keep it simple.

  1. Has a strong chance of winning
  2. Has a reasonable chance of winning
  3. You really don’t know what their chances are
  4. Has only a slim chance if any
  5. Has practically no chance at all

Be ready to change these ratings. No one really knows what the future holds. Feel free to use 3s liberally. This is not a test of your precognition, it’s just a way to help make strategic decisions.

If you are looking at primary and then general elections, try to give a rating for each.


A candidate you favor has a good chance of winning

This would be someone you rated a 1 or 2 in step #2 and rated 1, 2, or 3 in step #3.

This is an easy scenario, just vote for that candidate and hope they win.

You don’t favor any of the candidates likely to win

This would be a situation where every candidate rated 1 or 2, in step #3 was rated 3, 4 or 5 in step #2.

At this point, you should look for a “lesser-evil.” That is to say if you are considering a 4 vs a 5 or a 4 vs a 4.

If you can identify a “lesser evil”, then you should probably cast your vote for them. You at least have a chance of making an impact that is meaningful.

If you cannot identify a “lesser evil” then you should probably vote for whatever unlikely candidate you like most no matter how unlikely. The idea is that you at least give them and others like them some encouragement to keep trying.

One final thought here. If you can identify an outside candidate that has future potential to be viable and the “lesser-evil” is only one step better, then you may want to throw your support to the outsider to play the long game. So-called “spoiler-candidates” can have political influence when they are shown support if only because the losing side may court their support in the future.

Voting amid uncertainty

If you don’t have a good sense of who is going to win but you need to cast a vote, then vote for the candidate most favorable to your goals and hope they win.

Balancing chance of winning against favorability

If you find yourself struggling to balance the chance of winning vs likability with multiple candidates you generally favor, you can simply take an average of the two scores and go with the one that scores best (lowest in this system). In the case of a tie, I recommend leaning into favorability rather than likelihood.


What about not voting at all? Where does that fit in this strategy?

I would treat an abstention as a candidate, essentially “none of the above.” You can rate their likelihood as a 5. Then just evaluate how well not voting achieves your interests. Finally, evaluate it against the other candidates.


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