In most of scholarly discussions about voting systems, the implication seems to be that one of the desired goals is to minimize/eliminate insincere/tactical/strategic voting:

Tactical voting is commonly regarded as a problem, since it makes the actual ballot into a nontrivial game, where voters react and counter-react to what they expect other voters' strategies to be.

Is there an actual scholarly or political science research showing that efficacy of tactical voting is an undesirable property of a voting system aside from "well, it makes voting more complicated and if you don't do it right you may accidentally end up with worse electeds"?

Nobody is forced to use tactical voting strategies, so if you use one incorrectly (as opposed to sincerely voting your preferences), it should be your problem, not the voting system's.

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    I don't see how this can be constructively answered. Unless somebody has poll data, each person who could answer this question has his own reason why he might not like strategic voting. for me it's just because I want the government to represent the will of the people, and tactical voting is people not voting exactly for what they want. – Avi Aug 10 '13 at 2:34
  • @Avi - tactical voting is not some law that everyone has to obey. If you want to vote exactly how you want, you do it. Leaving aside that ANY vote for anyone except yourself is NOT a vote for "exactly what you want" - and thus a tactical vote - tactical voting can not be bad because it's a choice, it does NOT detract from one's ability to vote how they want. – user4012 Aug 10 '13 at 11:16
  • Let me clarify then: it isn't people voting for the candidate they most want to win. And, for the record, I wouldn't want myself to hold many elected offices. – Avi Aug 10 '13 at 11:30
  • While this is a good clarification, on a meta level, you have not proven your case. "candidate they most want to win" isn't really a goal of voting (OK, it is in out effed-up celebrity culture where people would make Bieber president faster than you can say "policy"), the goal is to get the most desired legal/political/social outcome. You are making an assumption that "voting for the candidate they most want to win" is the best proxy for that goal, when you state that tactical voting is bad, without proof that it is indeed the best proxy. – user4012 Aug 10 '13 at 11:36
  • The most desired goal, for me at least, consists of elections that represent the will of the people. The problem here is that the most desired legal, political, and social outcome will vary from person to person, so the question can't be answered constructively. – Avi Aug 10 '13 at 11:40

To make a tactical vote, you need an estimate how much votes each candidate is probably going to get. Only then, looking at the numbers, you can decide that it will be tactical to vote Y instead of X -- because X has almost no chance to be elected, and although you would prefer X to Y, you also prefer Y to Z.

Now, how do you get these estimates? Most people get them from the media.

And this is the problem: if you own the media, you can manipulate the election estimates, which lets you indirectly manipulate the tactical votes of citizens. Such a manipulation can easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you make everyone believe that "X has no chance of winning, because only 1% of people would vote for X", many people will vote strategically for Y... and at the end you may be actually proven right, because only 1% of people will vote for X.

In short: Tactical voting gives too much power to media owners, because they influence the information people use for voting tactically.

  • Do you have evidence that the media influence tactical voting more than they would influence other voting? – Avi Aug 10 '13 at 11:40
  • I don't have any proof or statistics, it just seems to me that discussions about whether given party or candidate "has a chance" (i.e. whether you should vote tactically someone else whom the newspaper owner would prefer) are pretty frequent in newspapers before any elections in my country. I also don't have numbers about how media influence other types of voting. At least for other types of voting the media always have to invent a new story (why this specific candidate should not be voted by his specific voters), while for tactical voting the same argument is always recycled. – Viliam Búr Aug 14 '13 at 12:53
  • If you don't have proof or statistics, you answer is speculation, and thus not a real answer. – Avi Aug 14 '13 at 13:47
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    @Avi: How would you prove it? Is there a country without tactical voting that we could compare against? – dan04 Aug 17 '13 at 21:31
  • I'm not sure how I'd prove it, but that doesn't matter. Burden of proof doesn't disappear just because it's hard to meet. – Avi Aug 18 '13 at 11:14

Let us first ask what are the implications of tactical voting?

The main implication is that to obtain the best possible result you should vote tactically, but this is discriminatory against everybody voting sincerely. Voting sincerely for somebody who is already known will not win is equivalent to throwing away your vote.

Additionally, anybody having more information about the likely result can make a better decision about who to vote. Both these properties are undemocratic, as they arbitrarily advantage certain groups of people.

Furthermore, tactical voting paves the way for self fulfilling prophecies. If two parties or candidates target the same electoral base, they can try to convince the public that they have an electoral advantage (for example by publishing fake forecasts) and convince the voters that if they vote for the other candidate they are throwing away their vote.

In brief, it is desirable that when a voter votes, the only information he uses is who he wants to win, not what he things other people will vote. This latter information is not interesting for determining the best and preferred candidate; in the best case it complicates the system, but in virtual all real cases it can change the outcome, and it will do this to the disadvantage to honest voters -- voters that were not able to correctly predict other voters behavior -- and to the disadvantage of candidates that where perceived to be unlikely to gain enough support (while possibly actually being liked by many).

  • -1 because of "undemocratic ...they arbitrarily advantage certain groups of people" that seems contradictory to reality. EVERYONE can vote tactically, and in modern world everyone with access to TV or internet has the same exact information "about the likely result". The second half of the answer is pretty good though. – user4012 Jan 5 '13 at 13:50
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    everybody can, but not everybody does, it is not a criteria which has a good justification of influencing the elections, and certainly not everybody has the same information, firstly because some people can have more time to watch TV or look on the internet, and not everybody has the same skills in extracting this information, I call it arbitrary as there does not seem to be a good reason why these differences should influence the elections – Fela Winkelmolen Jan 5 '13 at 13:53
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    sorry, lacking in motivation doesn't make you into some uniquely disadvantaged group. Everyone has a CHOICE to be informed, and a chance to do so. I could buy your argument in 1900, but not in 2012, when voting tactics and strategy are discussed on gazillion media places, including those helpfully simplifying the info. Not putting in an effort to be informed does not make one a member of some unique "disadvantaged" group, merely lazy. – user4012 Jan 5 '13 at 13:58

There are a number of problems with a system that incentivizes tactical voting. But what problem it is depends on the type of tactical voting incentivized. Gibbard's Theorem proves that all voting systems incentivize tactical voting when there is more than 2 candidates, so this isn't something you can eliminate, only something you can minimize.

The spoiler effect in voting systems like plurality leads to tactical voting of Favorite Betrayal. This causes the two-party system you see in countries like the US. This is possibly the worst example of real-world tactical voting causing major problems, but there are other examples of tactical voting causing problems. Another example is in tactical bullet voting (which isn't seen much in practice) where someone might rate their 2nd choice candidates far less than they otherwise would in order to give their first choice candidate more of an edge.

If you want to read more about evaluating voting methods and types of tactical voting, see here: https://governology.wordpress.com/2017/12/12/voting-systems-the-lifeblood-of-democracy-part-1/


It can be undesirable because in situations like the United States, where we tend to have only 2 dominate parties, it is used to marginalize third parties (even more than they are).

Granted, that makes tactical voting more of a symptom of a bigger issue rather than a problem in and of itself.


An issue of tactical voting is that it polarises the debate. An issue of tactical voting is that lessor candidates never stand a chance and the two dominant parties can fight among themselves. An issue of tactical voting is the power it grants to opinion makers (like large national newspaper groups). An issue of tactical voting is that the other issues have some nasty side effects.

When engaged in tactical voting a person makes an assumption as to which candidates or options are the most likely to win and then votes against the one they want the least by voting for the other one. This results in the most popular options being the only options.

To draw the first of many examples from the UK this has meant that the favour of one man Rupert Murdoch (who owns most of the news outlets) could pretty much decide the outcome of an election. But failing that he could polarize the vote into a choice between the strongest contender and the one that they are standing against. This has resulted in "swing" seats that flip-flop back and forth between Labour and Conservative and attract BNP and other extremist candidates to stir up racial tensions and sometimes capture the swing vote.

Another example of this in the UK is the three leading parties. Conservative (sometimes called The Tories) and Labour have traditionally represented the right/left balance with Liberal Democrats occupying the middle. By popularity it might be natural to think that any of the three might win. However Lib-Dems are seen as the "also rans" and so supporters often choose one of the other two parties to block the one party they really do not want.

In fact sometimes a candidate when up against a stronger opponent might remind the swing voters "a vote for Lib-Dem is a vote for the other guy". Thus voting with your heart is seen as wasting a vote.

This has resulted in a situation where campaigns are run on tactical seats. These are areas where there is a chance of swinging the vote in favour of the party seeking election. The by product of this is that only certain wards "matter" in the national elections. Additionally only swing groups within that ward are targeted. These are called "key demographics" and it can meant hat the entire election in one are might be seen as pleasing the LGBT community or the Asian community or some other clearly identifiable group.

Some American elections are all about who wins the hearts of the "bible belt" meaning that for all it should be separate religion is the deciding factor in the election.

This gives a disproportionate amount of importance (and thus power) to the issues that are important to those communities. This can make an entire election about the candidates trying to please the same group of people that does not include you or anyone you know. You simply do not matter to the candidates. Your vote is irrelevant.

This also means that just by convincing the public that something is true can make it true. Take the last UK election. The Lib-Dem leader was able to get equal air time with the other two leaders and being charismatic and seemingly fresh people responded positively to him. Public opinion was then that the election was a contest between Conservative and Liberal Democrat with the incumbent Labour seen by some as the hopeless case. Lib-Dem supporters therefor all voted Lib-Dem and many wards saw the swing voters divided between the two other parties.

Rather than the swing from Labour to Tory which is expected when Labour hold power the swing went from Labour to Liberal Democrat and The Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties were required to share power which for the UK is unusual.

Another example is in so called safe seats where a party has sufficient signed up supporters that they will win without effort. In such cases there is no option but to vote for the incumbent's strongest opponent in the hope of reducing his or her margin and sending a (weak) message about what matters to you. The result is that there appears to be almost no support for any other political perspective and the debate in that area becomes polarized.

This is spectacularly demonstrated in US politics where the FPTP (First Past The Post) elections effectively devid you between Republican and Democrat. Fringe parties are not seen as legitimate by voters and the rich array of political choice is lost. The side effect of this is that all issues are presented as an either or question and the voter left to choose one bundle of answers or the other. The only mitigation of this is that voters are sometimes involved in candidate selection as well.

Where tactical voting is reduced however we generally see issues which have far more moderate proponents and the extremes rarely show up. In the UK at the moment the right wing Conservative party are running a private crusade against benefits and claimants this will go on widening the rich/poor divide. Previously the Labour party went on a pro-benefits reform crusade and championed the "Every Child Matters" program with a view of attempting to eradicate child poverty. There is no reason to think that they will not do that again when they get into power next and no reason to think that the conservative party will not run another war on the benefits system when they take power again. At no point does it make sense for either party to say "hey let's get the balance right here" as that would be too moderate and give ground to the other extreme.

A further problem arises when both the strongest candidates are seen as morally reprehensible. In STV and PR systems lack of popular support would become quickly apparent but when faced with voting for a moderate candidate and voting for a known racist in order to prevent another known racist with plans to support "camps" to keep ethnic minorities in who do you choose? Okay so that is an extreme example but tactical voting means that moderate people may vote for a bad candidate to prevent an evil candidate from winning. Or more commonly vote for a bad choice to prevent a very bad one from winning.

Tactical voting also results in changes to the way campaigns are won and opponents are treated. The first part of any campaign is to convince voters that the candidate has a chance of winning at all. If you cannot then votes for that candidate are "wasted votes".

This style of campaigning means that you must aggressively attack all other potential candidates on past record or party record or something and show that they are bad choices. This leaves all the candidates looking like petty minded bad people and voters wondering why no one has anything nice to say about the candidates.

All sorts of nominally or unrelated trend data is used and abused to bamboozle voters with claims of who might be a likely candidate and setting the choice as between your candidate and the unwelcome one. This makes the politics setting seem really complicated and clouds the issues with complicated looking mathematical discussions.

Tellingly a candidate must attack most fiercely the other candidates whose opinion are most similar to their own. This makes candidates look like hypocrites and puts people off voting at all. In Thanet where I live a local election is lucky to see 30% turnout due to this sort of dissatisfaction.

When dissatisfaction is high enough those parties with enough money can buy a win (where there is no spending limit). It also means that a party simply needs to appeal to one or two niche groups that still vote and can ignore whole demographics, ethnicities and issues as they lack voters that can be said to "matter".

In areas like mine this also allows the extremists to slowly gain a foothold. This happens because candidates slowly push out towards the extremes in order to find topics and issues that they are different on. When the extremists move in they can do so by expressing some common sense on what should be fairly middle of the road issues. They play down the more alarming parts of their background and seem to be a breath of fresh air.

Another problem that can happen is that all activity connected to the word politics becomes about confrontation and conflict. It becomes important to never, ever agree with the other party. If they try to do something the opposition must dig their feet in and do their best to protest and fight it. Thus they can be seen as the saviours and win votes at the next election. In some local councils in the UK this has resulted in local authorities that can do almost nothing by themselves and every council meeting becomes a war-zone over every issue. This happens where I live. The upshot is that only the most hard nosed candidates survive very long and I am sad to say this is usually because they lack empathy, interest or morals. The ex-leader of the council is currently serving a prison sentence for corruption in a public office and no one was the least bit surprised that he was charged.

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