Strategic Voting in NY, NJ, and Afghanistan

by Joshua Tucker on November 2, 2009 · 4 comments

in Campaigns and elections

In his book Making Votes Count, Gary Cox makes the by now well known prediction that in single member districts (i.e., electoral races where only one person can ultimately win the seat/position up for election), voters should ultimately settle on one of the top two candidates in an effort not to waste their vote. Knowing this, elites should congregate around the top two candidates as well, ultimately leading to only two viable candidates within a given district. This behavior, on the part of both elites and voters, is loosely known in the political science literature as strategic voting. With this weekend’s political developments in mind, I thought it might be interesting to revisit Cox’s predictions regarding strategic voting.

By far the best realization of Cox’s predictions can be found in the NY 23 house race, where, as predicted, the candidate running third in the poll – Dede Scozzafava – has dropped out of the race and thrown her support behind one of the top two candidates. Score one for Cox.

In New Jersey, however, we still see a three way race for governor, with independent candidate Chris Dagget staying in the race up until the end. Dagget’s behavior is not particular consistent with Cox’s predictions, as the polls are giving him very little realistic chance of winning at this point, indeed probably even less than Scozzafava had.

Voters, however, do appear to be desserting Dagget a bit in recent days, which, according to Cox, is what they should be doing. So perhaps we can give Cox a push on this one.

Finally, we come to Afghanistan, which alone among the three elections under consideration has the right institutions for managing strategic voting, in the form of a two-round majoritarian electoral system. In these types of electoral institution – under which only the top two vote winners move on to a second round if no one gets a majority in the first round of the election – voters can safely cast their vote for their preferred candidate in the first round knowing that they will still have a chance to cast a ballot between the top two choices in the second round, and therefore not “waste their vote”. According to the logic of strategic voting, we should never see a candidate drop out in the second round of a two-round majoritarian election, which is, of course, exactly what just happened in Afghanistan, joining another distinguished recent election (the 2008 Zimbabwe Presidential Election) in this disturbing trend. To understand such behavior, therefore, we’ll likely need to look elsewhere, and in particular to the literature on election boycotts. But that’s another post for another day.


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