Should we vote for nincompoops?

JDN 2457243 EDT 13:47

lizard voting

One of the most widely-shared posts on Less Wrong (If you aren't familiar with Less Wrong, I highly recommend it; reading it will literally make you a more rational human being) argues emphatically that we must “stop voting for nincompoops”, that is, rather than voting strategically, vote directly from conscience. Most political scientists would disagree; there is a whole literature on strategic voting.

Then again, there is a whole literature on the so-called “Downs paradox” basically arguing that you shouldn't vote at all (I debunk this notion as part of this post on my other blog). Surprisingly, many political scientists do not appear to believe all that strongly in democracy—despite having a job that requires democracy to exist, with findings that democracy is literally one of the best things that ever happened in human history.

I bring up the topic now because voting strategically is a matter of particular importance for the upcoming 2016 election of the President of the United States. Basically everyone I have spoken to on the subject prefers Bernie Sanders to Hillary Clinton. Yet many of these people say that they intend to vote for Hillary Clinton in the primary. Why would they do that?

Well, they are voting strategically. The argument goes something like this: Because of her far larger quantity of campaign funding and her connections within the political system, Hillary Clinton has a much better chance of winning the general election. If we choose Sanders in the primary, there is a greater chance that Republicans will win the general election and someone like Scott Walker or Jeb Bush will become President. Therefore we should vote for Hillary Clinton in the primary to ensure that Republicans do not win in the general election.

First of all, I should say that this argument is not totally ridiculous. I wish that our voting system allowed us to express our preferences honestly without harming our own interests. But it does not. Unfortunately, it turns out that by the Gibbard-Satterthwaithe theorem this isn't even possible—all reasonable voting systems can run into at least some cases where it is better for your own interests to misrepresent your vote. (You can escape the problem by having a dictator who decides everything or choosing at random, but at that point is it even really a voting system?)

However, some voting systems do much better than others. Range voting escapes Arrow's theorem by being more expressive than a simple rank-ordering. It doesn't quite escape the Gibbard-Satterthwaithe theorem, however—but it does actually get pretty close.

Indeed, under a range voting system, it would be obvious what to do: Give Bernie Sanders a 10 and Hillary Clinton a 7, while giving Jeb Bush and Scott Walker 3s and Donald Trump a 0. Actually there might be strategic reasons to give Jeb Bush more points than Hillary Clinton, because, like I said, range voting doesn't completely eliminate strategic voting. But you'd definitely give the most points to Bernie Sanders and the least to Donald Trump.

Alas, we do not have a range voting system. We have a winner-takes-all plurality vote system, also known as “first past the post”; whoever gets the most votes wins. In the general election, we basically choose from two candidates, and whichever gets more votes is the winner.

We have this system, probably, because it is the simplest and most obvious way to vote. But it is in fact just about the worst possible voting system that can still technically be considered democracy.

Why? First of all, choosing from two candidates is the bare minimum to be a choice at all. You are only giving 1 bit of information, 1 single preference. If you had only one candidate, you'd give 0 bits, no information at all. Better voting systems would have more candidates to choose from.

Second, choosing the one with the most votes results in throwing away the vast majority of information you could have given about your preferences. It gives no sense of how much you preferred one to the other—whether you love one and hate the other, or simply flipped a coin. Even if there are multiple candidates, you can only vote for one.

Finally, our voting system is exceptionally easy to manipulate. It's not just strategic voting—under our system you can run strategic candidates. You can run what's called a clone, a candidate who is basically identical to your opponent. Voters who would have chosen your opponent will now be split between your opponent and the clone, and thus you can win an election even if you are most of the population's third choice.

Many people argue that this is what happened in the 2000 Bush-Gore-Nader election; Nader was too much like a clone of Gore, so Bush was able to win even though most people preferred Gore. Nader only won 2.7% of the vote, though the margin between Gore and Bush was small enough that it's possible this made a difference. In fact, I think a much clearer explanation of why Gore lost can be found in the fact that Gore actually won the popular vote (by about a 0.5% margin) but Bush won the Electoral College—and perhaps also that Jeb Bush was governor of the key state that “happened” to lose track of millions of ballots. The conservative-dominated Supreme Court cut off the recounts. If the recounts had continued, Gore would probably have won. The 2000 election does evidence many problems in our electoral system, but I'm not sure that its vulnerability to clones is the one to focus on.

Range voting is necessarily an improvement over our current system, since in the absolute worst-case scenario of strategic voting, range voting would mean giving a maximum score to one candidate and minimum scores to all others—which is exactly what a winner-takes-all plurality vote does. In all but that worst-case scenario, range voting expresses voter preferences more accurately. In fact, even this understates the difference, because range voting this way would only make sense in situations in which plurality voting is relatively good. So the worst-case scenario for range voting is very close to the best-case scenario for plurality voting.

Alas, plurality voting is what we're stuck with, so I really haven't answered the question: Should we vote for nincompoops? Should we strategically vote against what we really believe in order to avoid the worst-case scenario?

No, not this time. This time, vote for what you believe in. Vote for Bernie Sanders.

There may be other times, when the candidate you really like truly is an awful longshot and the candidate you really hate truly is horrifically evil. Given the choice between a candidate you love who won't win, a candidate you like who can win, and a mass-murdering psychopath who would otherwise win, by all means, vote for the candidate you merely like to ensure the psychopath doesn't make it.

But while Hillary Clinton is obviously a better candidate than Jeb Bush, she's not really that much better—they are both DC insiders, born into privilege, part of extremely powerful political dynasties, with tens of millions of dollars at their disposal, funded by—and therefore beholden to—banks and other large corporations. Clinton would definitely be better on certain issues, particularly domestic social issues like women's rights and LGBT rights—and that's not nothing. But Jeb Bush would probably be better than his older brother and maybe even no worse than his father, and what we'd lose in bad policy we might actually gain in breaking Congressional deadlock. Clinton is a business-as-usual Democrat, while Bush is a business-as-usual Republican, and Democrats are better than Republicans. But they're both still business-as-usual.

I don't want to sugar-coat a Jeb Bush presidency; it would certain involve a lot of awful things, including most likely more regressive taxation and yet another war in the Middle East (probably Iran). But it would not be the collapse of all that America holds dear.

A Donald Trump presidency would be the collapse of all that America holds dear—but he's got about the same chance of being nominated as I do. In fact, his willingness to run outside the Republican Party could be an enormous gift to Democrats and ultimately to Bernie Sanders. While not actually a clone, he'd have a similar effect, pulling the most extreme right-wing votes. Only mainline conservatives would stick with Bush, while Sanders would have everyone left of the center.

People who fear that Bernie Sanders couldn't win imagine that he would only draw the most far-left votes; but polls don't actually support that notion. Bernie Sanders is experiencing a groundswell of popularity even among conservative people, because his honesty and authenticity resonate so much. People who don't understand economic policy generally vote based on character, and it just so happens that the best economic policy comes this election with the best character. He is gaining on Hillary Clinton and polls suggest he could beat Walker or Bush in the general. He cares about including the whole population and resolving disagreement rather than simply winning contests, and that is why he is planning to speak at Liberty University.

Bernie Sanders excites people because he is everything Hillary Clinton is not. He wasn't born into privilege, he doesn't have millions of dollars to throw around, he isn't funded by billionaires or megabanks. Bernie Sanders isn't running on his DC insider connections or his overwhelming campaign financing, he's running on his principles and his ideas. She is expecting to be coronated as the obvious only “electable” choice; he is trying to win votes as someone we really believe in. Hillary Clinton is the best option among the crypto-plutocracy that American democracy has been moving toward; but a vote for Bernie Sanders is a vote to defend what American democracy is supposed to be.

Hillary Clinton would choose better Supreme Court justices than Jeb Bush, no doubt about that. But Bernie Sanders might actually push for a Constitutional amendment that allows us to remove Supreme Court justices before they retire or die. Bernie Sanders might actually try to limit the power of the Supreme Court so that they aren't pulling the strings of our entire government. And he has already clearly stated that he would not appoint any Supreme Court justice who agrees with the Citizen United ruling that opened our political campaigns to unlimited corporate funds. Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton won't even talk about her position on the Keystone XL pipeline.

If Hillary Clinton does win the primary, yes, obviously, you should vote for her in the general election. (You weren't seriously considering voting for Jeb Bush, were you? Jill Stein is running again, so if you're in a hard-blue or hard-red state maybe you should vote for her instead. But in a swing state? It should be the Democratic nominee.) But in the primary, we have a chance to make real change in the way that our government is run, real change in the way that our elections are structured. It's not so much what Sanders himself can do as it is the precedent that his election would set, the message it would send to people around the world: Yes, democracy can work. Yes, your vote matters. Yes, politics can be about principle, about policy, and not about corporate funding and insider contacts.

There may be times when you should vote for nincompoops. But not this time.

[The image is something I created myself, from components found at The reference should be familiar to fans of Douglas Adams.]

Patrick Julius

Patrick Julius

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  • I actually do feel like I have choices. I do not believe I am going to have to vote for the lessor of two evils. (I did not consider Kerry or Gore to have been the lessor of two evils- I think they would have made good presidents.) In this election cycle I think Democrats have good options. I understand the concerns some have for both Hillary and Bernie. The fact is, we will never have a perfect candidate. Really, no matter who runs, someone will not agree with them or like them. Picking ONE person to run a country this size is always going to be challenging. We need to accept that NOT every single one of your own personal needs is going to be met and vote for someone that can negotiate and compromise. I feel sorry for moderate Republicans- they are the ones who really do have to pick the lessor of several evils.

  • I strongly support Bernie. I have donated to his campaign and will vote for him in the primary

    But I know how politics works, so if Hillary wins, she will have my total backing

    The fact is any Bernie (or Hillary) supporter who cannot say the same is giving the country to theocrats, misogynists, xenophobes, bigots and racist.