Protest Vote

Similar to a SpoiledBallot, a ProtestVote is a vote for a candidate or party that has virtually no chance of winning.

You are extremely unhappy with all of the candidates that have a chance of winning, or polls show that the election is pretty clearly decided already.

If the dominant parties think they have no competition, they will tend to ignore the populace or ignore issues that are of high importance but aren't much fun to cover in the news (like paying off the national debt).

The government makes ballot access easier for parties that have gotten at least a certain percentage of the vote.


Vote for a candidate from a minor party, even if you think the candidate or party is too extreme to belong in office. This will keep the minor party and its government support alive until the next election, enabling them to raise issues, participate in public debates, and generally keep the major parties looking over their shoulders.


In a close race you have to weigh the benefit to the minor party against the pain you will experience over many years if a really bad major party comes to power. Especially when the effects of such a bad party, like appointments of justices and reserve chairmen, will last for decades.

Strictly speaking, the point of a ProtestVote is not to benefit the minor party. It's to make the major parties worry that the minor parties might actually get somewhere. Hopefully this will make the major parties address the concerns that the minor parties represent, whereas otherwise they would be tempted to ignore them. Also, the conditions for a ProtestVote are that the election is *not* close, or that *all* of the candidates with a chance of winning seem awful, so that it makes little difference to you which one wins. --BenKovitz

Indeed. The 2000 US presidential race can be seen as this scenario:

Candidate 1: Really, really what you want, but no chance of winning. Candidate 2: Sorta OK guy. Seems to get about 45 % of the votes. Candidate 3: Bad, BAD guy. Seems also to get about 45 % of the votes.

Should you vote your conscience and go for #1, or should you support #2, just to decrease the risk of getting #3?

One of the conditions of ProtestVote is that polls show that the election is pretty well decided already, or you are unhappy with *all* the candidates that have a chance. In your scenario, this condition is not satisfied. Clearly #2 is the best choice. If you think that one of the realistic candidates is at least sorta OK, the election does not merit a protest. --BenKovitz

Wheeeeee. So under that reasoning, voting for the guy you really believe deserves to be elected is a ProtestVote, and that is a justification for actually voting for your second best choice ? That sounds twisted to me - how is "your guy" ever going to be elected then ?

I think this is not an appropriate standard. Elections are a sub-optimal but (often) passable way for large groups to make decisions. You don't ever get to have "your guy" elected. What you get is a few choices of candidates that have some realistic hope of winning. ProtestVote says that when you really loathe all of these candidates, you can vote in a way that influences how the pool of realistic candidates is selected in future elections. --BenKovitz

Just to kick in with an AustralianCulturalAssumption (after all it's only fair) Protest vote is when the person you want to vote for is taking a position you don't agree with on an issue (or related group of issues) and so you vote for a niche party you don't want in and allocate your preferences manually so your vote will still go to the party you want elected.

Of course this does backfire when enough people register a protest vote that the niche parties votes don't resolve to preferences. Naturally this is more likely when voting for the Senate then the House Of Representatives, but then again at least this has meant Australia does maintain a ThreePartyDemocracy?. -- AndraeMuys

btw: If people are interested make a note here and I can remove my assumption that everyone knows how the Australian political system works :)

It would seem to depend on how badly the BAD guy could screw things up. In the American presidential race for example, the president has no real power in domestic affairs so you might as well go for Candidate 1. --AndyPierce

You seem deeply misinformed. The US president has dramatic domestic power:

This last power can be overridden by a two thirds vote of both houses of congress, but that usually requires the president's own party to vote to override, which as you may imagine doesn't happen much. Make no mistake, the US president is emphatically the most powerful person in domestic US politics. Except, of course, for the unelected officials ...

Contrast this with, for example, the most powerful elected official in the United States -- the Mayor of New York City. In this case, you better not let the bad guy in to screw things up, so a vote for Candidate 2 would be in order. Note also that in an instant-runoff preferential system such as Australia has, this whole scenario would be a non-issue as you would vote Candidate 1 as your first choice and Candidate 2 as your second choice. If the vote comes in at the predicted 10/45/45 then Candidate 1 is dropped from contention and the second choice on the Candidate 1 ballots is elevated to first choice status to decide between Candidates 2 and 3 -- AndyPierce

The mayor of NYC is the most powerful elected official ... come again? I live in southern California - what can he do that affects me?

In terms of raw ability to make things happen that affect the largest number of people's daily lives in significant ways, the Mayor of New York City is the number one guy (Mayor of Los Angeles may come close). "Elected Dictator of New York City" would not be too far from the truth. Contrast this with the President who has a lot of power to make things NOT happen (mainly by veto), but very little power otherwise. By way of illustration, compare how much of Bill Clinton's domestic agenda actually got implemented to how much RudyGiuliani?'s agenda for New York City did.

A city mayor might do unfortunate things with zoning, maybe take money from unsavoury characters, or refuse to fund some piece of art that doesn't fit his aesthetics, but that makes him far from a dictator. Further still from someone with real power. As to PresidentialPowers, check that list again. Veto is the least of it.

Actually, I was using the term 'dictator' without the AmericanCulturalAssumption that a dictatorship is undesireable. The extensive powers that the Mayor has, relatively unhamstringed by either a House Of Representatives or Senate as is the case with the President, is a large part of what has enabled the dramatic improvement in overall living conditions for people in The City in the last 6 or 7 years. -- AndyPierce

By this logic you may as well say your spouse is the most powerful person in the world; after all, who has more power over your immediate locale? But this is wandering far from the point. Plainly the US PresidentialPowers deeply affect the entire US, including your hometown. For example? The race being close, it follows that a ProtestVote must be considered unwise at this time. The issue is, who has the most ability to affect the daily lives of the most people? In the United States Of America, the answer is NOT the President, since he hardly ever affects anyone's daily lives. My wife, although very powerful over one person's daily life (mine) doesn't really stack up to the way the Mayor affects the daily life of 8 million of his constituents. Another way of measuring this would be to ask: Which elected official can most easily implement an agenda which affects most strongly how the most people live most often? This is very difficult for the President, since he cannot initiate any legislation, must have all his appointments confirmed, and just plain doesn't have jurisdiction over stuff that affects people every day for example: education, intrastate commerce, local emergency services, community services, trash collection, rent control, etc.

The president is perceived as having enormous power and pretends as if he has significant power over your daily life. For example, there are no federal powers over education -- this is controlled completely by the States, however it doesn't stop the PresidentialCandidates? from promulgating their "education platforms". For this reason, the perception of a president with enormous domestic power vs the reality of a president with actually very limited domestic power, you get the most BangForYourBuck? by casting a ProtestVote in a presidential election.

When I lived in LosAngeles, I heard that the mayor there is pretty much a figurehead, having very little power. Can someone out there say if that's true? --BenKovitz

In Canada you have the option of "refusing your ballot". You show up at the polling place, they hand you the ballot, you tell them "I refuse the ballot" and give it back to them. The number of refused ballots is tallied and reported in the formal election results. It's the Canadian equivalent of voting NoneOfTheAbove. Unfortunately, it is not widely known that refusing the ballot is a legitimate voting option. -- AndyPierce

Wouldn't this be a formally recognized form of SpoiledBallot?

No, because spoiled ballots don't get counted and reported. A refused ballot is reported as "ballot declined".

They do, actually. Don't you remember the QuebecReferendum?? The difference is in semantics. A NoneOfTheAbove is a clear choice and thus a better protest. A spoiled ballot may just be a mistake.

The QuebecReferendum? was a whole other can of worms. It did however provide a clear example of why you would want to have a NoneOfTheAbove option. With a NoneOfTheAbove option, there are three categories of votes: those that vote for a candidate (a "regular" ballot), those that are not valid (a SpoiledBallot) and those that choose not to be valid (NoneOfTheAbove). This allows Elections Canada to ascertain whether they need to change the wording or format of the ballot (e.g. if there were a lot of SpoiledBallot s) or whether the people simply do not like any of the choices offered.

As described here, it only works in a "winner takes all" voting system. If the voting system is arranged in such a way that the pie (parliament seats, congress men, whatever) is fairly split according to the ratio of the casted votes, then ProtestVotes can get a party real political power. However, this is often temporary (i.e. it only lasts until the next elections), since the party is now considered part of the "establishment".

The 'fairly split' cake is a bit of a problem, and deeply entrenched in the debate between adherents of FirstPastThePost and ProportionalRepresentation.
I think the 2000 presidential race is more like 5/45/45/5, because there is also Candidate 4: Extremely Bad Guy with no chance of winning - the mirror image of #1.

More like 5/47/47/1 last I heard. Certainly Al Gore is MUCH more worried about Ralph Nader than George Bush Jr is about Pat Buchannan. - Here in the future, we know that Gore was the one who should have worried about Buchannan. ;)

Many countries, particularly in europe, have an electoral system that would have avoided the current Gore/Bush mess. There are variations, but the essence is that you can list your preferred candidates in order of priority. If your first choice is eliminated then your vote passes on to your second choice, etc. This would have allowed people to vote for Nader without hurting the vote for Gore, and likewise Buchannan & Bush. This allows people to vote for the candidates they *really* want, instead of the HobsonsChoice that you have in the USA (and here in the UK). - DaveKirby

It's called preferential voting. How many countries actually have it? I'm only aware of two (Australia and Ireland). I am aware that there are lots of countries where if there is no clear winner, they have another election, but that's a lot of red tape.

I believe that they have this system in Switzerland as well.

Even with a preferential voting system like we have in Australia, it's possible to cast a protest vote -- you vote #1 for someone who has zero chance of getting in, and then fill in the rest of the voting boxes with "2", thus invalidating the preferences. Some contention exists as to whether this is a legal vote in Australia or not, and the fellow who was promoting it as a protest method got flung in jail, though there remains legal arguments even that wasn't right. Those wacky West Australians.

I'll take issue on the what seems like an underlying assumption here. Not every "vote for a candidate or party that has virtually no chance of winning" is a ProtestVote. Sometimes you simply choose to vote for the candidate you agree with most, ignoring the horse-race aspect altogether. I'd call that voicing your opinion, not protest.

From the Finnish point of view, this page is heavily biased. At least my definition of working democracy includes voters that really vote for the candidate they think best represents their views on various political issues. If the only situation where a minor candidate is feasible is one where all bigger candidates are awful, you're deep in TacticalVoting.

It's important that minor candidates get votes so that they will be acknowledged as possible winners and will probably get even more votes in the future. Voting only for candidates that are likely to win is optimising for LocalMaximum. Lack of measures to prevent this kind of VotingPatterns is one of the big shortcomings of traditional democracy. (Too bad, I don't have a solution ready.) -- PanuKalliokoski

Contributors: BenKovitz, AndyPierce, OleAndersen, IainLowe


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