Vote Swapping Breaks Democracy

I’ve always thought the concept of vote-swapping was problematic. Not only is it flawed in its own right but treating it as an acceptable strategy is like snuggling up to the idea that one party can function as a spoiler and that somehow, certain parties are entitled to votes. This is endemic to thinking of politics in a left/right dichotomy.

I just read Dipper Chick’s blog post explaining the problems with the Facebook vote-swapping mechanism. Her initial and important point is that it’s a manipulation of the already problematic first-past-the-post voting system we employ. Worse, it relies on blind trust, which mitigated through a Facebook app is fickle at best. Dipper Chick points out that

“…the biggest flaw in this vote swap system lies in the group’s major premise: that anyone but a Conservative is A-ok.”

And I believe that connects with the issue that I wanted to raise. “Anyone but a Conservative is A-ok” is a negative approach to voting. It’s asserting that you dislike a certain candidate, policies, or way of representing your interests so you will vote against that to ensure it doesn’t happen. Actually it ensures very little. By voting negatively you’re not asserting a positive participatory voice.

In my opinion, the point of casting a ballot is to assert what you believe in, to state that this is the sort of representation you’d like, and that these policies or ways of handling events are they direction you’d like our country to head. When you treat an election in this manner, you’re asserting a positive, constructive voice. Rather than say “I don’t like that” and not offer a solution, you say “This is the direction I would like”, clearly the latter is the more constructive choice.

Back to the spoiler idea I mentioned at the beginning. Vote swapping with the “anything but” attitude, and thus participating in a negative vote strategy denies your choice for how you’d like the country to head. You’re saying that rather than move in the direction you think is best, you’re perfectly happy to accept another direction. Yet that other direction may be equally unsuitable as the “anything but” direction for your stance. To understand this, you must stop viewing the political spectrum in an oversimplified left/right dichotomy and instead consider each candidate and party for the individual platform it represents and actions taken.

Consider this. Accepting a simplified left/right dichotomy pretty much requires accepting that whichever party has the greatest pre-existing momentum from your side of the left or right, is the one most likely to win and thus an ok choice for your vote. But that party may not represent your voice at all if you consider its platform. Just because it is perceived to be on your supposed side of the dichotomy does not entitle it to your vote.

Swapping votes in order to strategically not-elect a certain stripe of MP only makes sense in the white-washed context the left/right dichotomy with a refusal to consider individual policy. It opens the door to manipulation through entitlement, which gets justified in pre-existing polls. If you’re just following along with the polls, what chance is there really for much change? Wherever history has built the greatest momentum, the polls are going to dictate that you follow that momentum.

For example, one could say “the liberal candidate represents the left-of-centre, polls indicate he has the greatest pre-existing support, so it’s ok to vote for him.” But looking at that candidate may reveal that he doesn’t represent what you’d like your voice to stand for. If you do vote your voice, selecting a different supposed left-of-centre candidate, you get considered a spoiler.

But what are you really spoiling? Actually nothing if you stop looking at the situation as a left/right dichotomy. Without that dichotomy it’s nonsensical to be a spoiler. The left or right ceases to have any entitlement to your vote because you’re not voting left or right. The momentum of polls ceases to influence your voice. Rather your voice gains the opportunity to positively and constructively influence the country’s direction. Vote swapping makes little sense outside the context of a left/right dichotomy.

5 Replies to “Vote Swapping Breaks Democracy”

  1. Democracy is already broken by FPTP, which is clearly indicated in the discrepency between who is governing us, and what parties the majority of Canadians voted for!

  2. Imagine that you and two other people are tied together and put on a mountain (by an evil bear or something).

    So then imagine that the three of you decide that sitting on the mountain is no good, and that you should be trying to escape. what’s more you all decide that you’re going to decide the direction according to vote.

    The guy on your left shoulder wants to walk up the mountain, and the guy on your right shoulder wants to follow a nearby stream. You’ve got a good sense of direction, and you think that if you walk along the side of the mountain, you’ll come across a road. As far as you’re concerned, they’re both crazy. As far as they’re concerned, you’re wrong. But night is falling and you have to get walking.

    So someone’s gotta concede.
    you reason that, if you walk up the mountain, it might be harder going, and it might not even be in the right direction, but at least a good view will open up. maybe if you and your companions could get a good look at the land, you could convince them to walk towards the road.

    on the other hand, if you walk down the mountain, you might end up in an uninhabited valley. also, you’ll surely get lost in the woods.

    So what’s wrong with “voting strategically”? it’s not true that there are only two directions to walk, but it IS true that there are only two directions YOUR COMPANIONS want to walk. and if no one concedes, then no one will get anywhere.

  3. Ben, thanks for your interesting comment. Unfortunately I’m not convinced that it works for the voting context. I’m also not so sure that it counters the rationale I set forth in this post.

    Our voting system is set up to, hopefully, mediate a complex decision process. In the mountain scenario, you’re suggesting an educated compromise as a manner of mediating a decision. I think your compromise is more analogous to our vote process than it is to manipulating our vote process.

    Two asides….

    One: our votes are cast for others to take action on our behalf (those elected). In the mountain scenario, we’re taking action ourselves. We can take direct responsibility and argue with one another over what we will do. In an election that possibility is somewhat removed because we’re relying on the will and actions of others.

    The gap between what I want and what the politicians claim they’ll do or how they’ll represent me, opens a door to influence by other actors.

    Two: Polls are notoriously not unanimous in what they represent (just look at the many polls running in this election – none agree). These polls are also potentially influenced by those paying for them and in the manner in which they’re conducted. Basing your choice on the shifting target of polls will not even alllow for the consideration of how your vote swapping might be affecting them. It’s as though you’re outsmarting yourself. Basing a vote swap on previous election results is worse, as things and opinions can change dramatically between elections.

    Anyway, fortunately I’m not related to Goldilocks–I remain unbothered by evil bears.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *