Will Your Vote be Strategic or Sincere?

Tom Knecht

In the annual Paul C. Wilt Phi Kappa Phi lecture (Monday, October 15, 7:00 p.m. in Hieronymous Lounge), Tom will help us probe the motivation behind casting a “sincere” vote or a “strategic” one. Most of us want to vote for the candidate whom we feel is best suited for the post. We want to vote our conscience. But in multi-candidate races there are occasions when we might be tempted to shift our vote from our preferred candidate to another one who is more likely to win, especially if we find the other options a greater risk or problem. In those situations, as Tom explains, our vote can be categorized as less “sincere” than "strategic."

Consider Florida in 2000. In an election where Bush eventually edged Gore by only some 500 votes in the state, nearly 100,000 left-leaning Floridians cast their votes for Green Party candidate Ralph Nader, even though they knew that their man had no chance of winning. On the other hand, there were certainly many Nader supporters who voted less “sincerely” and made the “strategic” choice of casting their ballots for Gore. And, had the Supreme Court ordered the Florida election to be redone, who knows how many more of those original Nader supporters would have chosen to become strategic once they knew how thin the margin between the top two candidates had become.

But, as Tom explains, there is an element of irrationality in that. Even in a very tight national election, there is no plausible way that my single vote will be decisive. So why not vote sincerely? Is democracy best served when voters express their sincere convictions rather than make strategic accommodations? Does the vitality of political discourse—including third party options—hinge on voter sincerity? Tom’s lecture will examine some of the ethics and irrationality of strategic voting.

The lecture will draw on his research exploring the factors that cause an individual to shift from a sincere preference to a strategic choice. Tom is looking at multiple variables, including party affiliation and education. While this research revives some work that Tom had started previously while teaching in Denver, it now draws substantially on Westmont students and colleagues. Patti Hunter suggested that the project could be a way of nurturing avenues for some interdisciplinary student research. As a result, Wayne Iba’s computer software class has been crafting the programs that will used by Tom and the political science students to determine if and when voters will drop their intentions to vote for candidates other than their first preferences.

The Paul C. Wilt Phi Kappa Phi lectures are named for Westmont’s longtime professor of history, who retired in 1996 and has served as an archivist. Offered in the fall and the spring, the lectures traditionally bring together faculty, staff, students, alums, and the local community to hear presentations about a professor’s recent research.