Strategic Voting

Usually when we hear about strategic voting it’s used as if it’s a derogatory term. But using a logical process to maximize the possible positive outcome of your vote isn’t inherently bad. Let’s talk about some of the “strategies” a voter might use.

My vote is my voice

Most people don’t realize just how thoroughly the vote totals that come out of an election are scrutinized. Politicians look at it. Political scientists look at it. Campaigns hire analysts to build models based upon it to determine strategies in the future. What you do with your vote is communicating something to these people for many years to come. What is it saying? If you’re taking this approach, that’s the only question that you really need to ask yourself.

The biggest advantage this approach to voting has is it doesn’t really depend much on what other people do. It’s very unusual for your vote to be the one vote that changes the outcome of an election, but every time you vote you change the vote total and change the math of those future analysts.

As a curious side note, some people will choose not to vote for this reason. It’s a little difficult to ascertain numerically how many people really could have voted though, as registrations are often out-of-date. So if this is what you want to do I would encourage you to show up and vote in at least one election, that way your ballot is tabulated and you’re counted in the undervote (those who skipped an election or wrote in someone not registered as a write-in). The undervote is definitely something those analysts notice and think about how they could grab those votes.


Let’s make a rather naive assumption for a moment that who gets elected is what really matters in an election. It is something that matters, of course, but if we pretended there was a real person who only concerned themselves with this there’s still a few strategies worth considering.

For all of these strategies, it really boils down to what happens if your vote happens to be the deciding factor. I’m going to assume you’re in Georgia (like I am) and voting in the first round of an election (like Tuesday) other than President (we don’t do runoffs for president).

  • Do you cause someone who might otherwise be in third place to instead be in second place and therefore be included in the runoff?
  • Do you cause a particular candidate to get more than a majority and therefore win and avoid a runoff?
  • Or perhaps you cause a runoff to happen, preventing an unfavorable leading candidate from just running away with the election.


With a maximax strategy you’re going to try to maximize the probability of the best possible outcome. Some would refer to this as an optimistic strategy.

The best possible outcome is the candidate who you believe would be best for the job winning. No matter what the scenario other voters put you in, best way to improve the probability of that candidate winning is to vote for them. Man this voting stuff is easy.

This is a perfectly valid strategy, and I certainly respect it. If we all did this we’d probably have a better system. But we don’t all do this, so let’s look at some others.


These voters are trying to minimize the chance that their least-favorite candidate wins. In a sense they’re voting against someone. This is quite different from the last case. Let’s say your preference is A, B, C – that is your favorite is candidate A and least-favorite is C. The maximax voter will always vote for A, but the minimax voter might consider voting for B if it helps stops C.

Many states use simple plurality voting with no runoff. A minimax voter in that situation will try to figure out who the “top 2” candidates are – that is those who have the most support or the second-most – and vote for whichever of those two they prefer. In the United States our media and consciousness is at the national level, so people generally assume those top 2 are the nominees of the two largest parties (Democrat and Republican in that order), even if in their district that isn’t actually the case.

Here in Georgia we have a runoff system, and as I stated I’m making a point to talk about the first round (the second round AKA the runoff is much, much simpler since at that point it’s a 2-way election). In this case the same minimax logic causes someone to vote for their preference of either the second-place or third-place candidate in the hopes of shutting C out of the runoff.

If A (their favorite) is in second or third, that’s an easy decision. Just vote for your favorite. If A happens to be in first one may be tempted to vote for A in the hopes of preventing a runoff at all, particularly if they’re afraid the people voting with them are doing so blindly, don’t really care who wins, and won’t show up in a runoff. That (relatively) increases the odds of a C win, though, so while that is a valid strategy it’s riskier and therefore closer to maximax than minimax.

To runoff or not to run off?

Some people suggest trying to force a runoff or prevent a runoff for its own sake. Maybe they have some personal feud with a candidate and want to make them spend more of their campaign funds and sweat it out for another month. Maybe they’re really sick of the campaign ads and want them to stop. Or maybe they care about the optics of it, and what the additional media attention will mean. So they’ll either vote for whoever they think will win anyhow to stop it, or vote for whoever they think is in last place to increase the probability of a runoff.

I’m highly suspicious of people who claim they’re doing this. If you’re not personally involved in a campaign it seems unlikely to me that you really care that much about that extra month. It doesn’t really change the outcome. When people say this, particularly on mainstream media channels, honestly I suspect they’re just trying to change the votes of people who aren’t going to carefully examine the argument.

What else?

I know I haven’t hit all of the possible ways of looking at this. If I haven’t hit upon how you decide your vote, say something in the comments!

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