Understanding voting behaviour has been a central concern for a lot of political scientists. Comprehending it can explain how and why decisions were made either by public decision-makers or by the electorate. Strategic voting is a form of behaviour that has been on the rise in recent times. In the population of voters, the election-specific voters are the ones to primarily adopt strategic voting (Munsey, 2008). Consequently, in this essay, our main focus will revolve around the behaviour and actions of these election-specific voters. On top of that, I’ll be explaining what strategic voting is and correspondingly going against the classical view of strategic voting which is, it predominantly exists only in majoritarian systems.
So, we begin by asking the question, what is strategic voting, when does it transpire and who are these election-specific voters? As put by Jean-François Daoust, a researcher at the University of Montreal’s Department of Political Science, “People vote strategically when they think neither their first nor their second choice has any chance of winning in their electorate. They vote for their third-choice party in the hopes of blocking an outcome that would be even worse”. To add to this, people vote for their third party not only to prevent an unfavourable outcome but to also pull the policy outcome closer to their preferred policies. Moreover, election-specific voters, are those who are motivated by a particular candidate or issue, and consistently show up to vote in every election.
Keeping this concept in mind, we shall now discuss the reason why strategic voting primarily exists in majoritarian systems. Duverger’s law states that in a majoritarian system the only likely outcome is a two-party system or government (Duverger 1954). Therefore, using this notion, one would imagine that voters of minor parties, who have a much lower chance of winning a seat, would pick their less preferred winning party. Additionally, Duverger expressed that voters in a proportional system have no incentive at all to vote strategically as their vote would count in terms of representation. This viewpoint of strategic voting isn’t wrong to an extent. For instance, in the UK (which has a majoritarian system), the Labour and Conservative parties held on to very high percentages of those who most preferred them while the Liberal Democrats held on to “only” 78% of those who most preferred them Fourth parties (Greens and UK Independence) fared poorly, as only 21% of those who ranked these parties the highest intended to vote for the party, clearly indicating desertion of voters and strategic voting (Abramson 2009). Although, the reason I stated to an extent is because the classical view that strategic voting primarily takes place in majoritarian systems is no longer accurate.
Indeed, proportional systems do experience strategic voting to a significant degree. In theory, proportional systems should provide a much lower incentive to vote strategically, since minor parties have a greater chance of obtaining seats in the office: however, there have been numerous studies illustrating just the opposite. One example of this phenomenon was the 1999 Israel election (proportional representation system) where more than 93% of the supporters of Labour and Likud (dominant parties) intended to vote for their favourite party. Only 61.3% of those who ranked Center, Meretz, and Shas the highest, intended to vote for that party (Abramson 2009). This pattern of defection from small to major parties reflects the pattern seen heavily in majoritarian systems, like the FPTP used in the UK, thereby demonstrating that strategic voting does indeed take place in PR systems.
From a theoretical point of view, this shouldn’t happen. So, we ask the question why is it that strategic voting takes place even in proportional systems? One potential reason could be due to the increase in levels of education and “cognitive mobilization” (Niemi et al. 1992). This refers to ‘Election-specific’ voters, mentioned above, who are gaining increasing abilities through education in the field, information provided by media and found on the internet making them aware and sound in the subject of politics. Specifically, these voters have greater awareness about the consequences of their choices and thus they make decisions which are calculative, and issue-oriented rather than just being driven by collective identities (cf Franklin 1985, Rose & McAllister 1986, Dalton 1996, Heath et al 1991). Therefore, with the increase in education and cognitive mobilization, voting behaviour has accordingly become more strategic and intricate in elections.
Another potential cause for strategic voting, as mentioned above, could be the availability of information in elections. The move of voters to the perceived majority view is called “contagion” (Balnaves, 2016). When information, specifically polls, are released by news agencies it affects the voting decisions of citizens. For instance, when the political opinion polls and the media climate appears to support one political party over another (biased media), there can be little doubt that there will be a contagion effect. One of the more famous incidents that illustrated the prejudice of media in elections, took place during the 1948 presidential elections in the United States. The Chicago Tribune, an established news agency, declared the wrong man president, the headline read, “Dewey Defeats Truman” (Cosgrove, 2014). At that time the voters of Truman stayed loyal and waited until the election to pick a candidate. It should be noted, however, the knowledge that citizens comprised about politics or electoral systems were not at the same level as it is now. Hence, even if this certain incident did not cause a massive surge in strategic voting formerly, my argument is that if the media were to release this kind of potential game-changing information in today’s modern society with increased political awareness, knowledge and rationality, there is a high possibility that voters would vote strategically and desert their most preferred party. Therefore, a case needs to be made that a publication of vital information by the media, which is now much more accessible due to the presence of social media, is quite likely to generate a surge in strategic voting that could change the results of an election.
Additionally, voters seem to be concerned about the types of coalitions formed in the government (Herrmann, 2008). It is to be noted that a strategic voter has expectations or estimations about the seats parties participating in the election will gain. They recognize that in PR systems a change in vote means a change in the allocation of seats. If voters perceive that their most preferred party is unlikely to be a member of the forming coalition, they essentially desert their party and pick their less preferred party who they perceive as a higher potential coalition member. This is illustrated through an experiment conducted by McCuen and Morton (2010). They discovered that subjects were found to vote for their second choice among three parties when it made sense to do so to affect the coalition composition. Additionally, there are those ‘Election-specific’ voters who are either pursuing the aim of balancing policies or maximising portfolios (Cox, 1997). In other words, those who have the objective to balance policies are likely to vote strategically for a small party in order to have a representation of diverse views in the coalition to form. Hence, in this case, voters are not primarily concerned about the policy outcome rather the coalition that is to be formed that drives them to vote strategically (which in turn will affect the policy outcome).
Moreover, when it comes to electoral systems, there are some nations like Germany that adopts a mixed electoral system. It combines PR with plurality rule in single-member districts. In the case of Germany, there’s a tendency for people to vote strategically due to the threshold of representation (5%) required by parties to enter the parliament (Shikano, Herrmann, Thurner 2009). The threshold compels the smaller parties like the FDP to commit themselves to one of the larger parties like the CDU. This tendency of small parties to form pre-electoral coalitions with either one of the large parties creates an incentive for supporters of CDU and SPD to defect from their first preference since they are unsure whether their party’s coalition partner will overcome the 5 percent threshold. Essentially by casting a vote for a minor party, like the FDP, they insure against a 5 percent loss lead by their most preferred party. Consequently, in this case, the threshold set in the election is the trigger for strategic voting in Germany.
Hypothetically the multi-member district in a PR system would and should solve the problem of strategic voting. Though, it would only solve the problem if there was a district magnitude that would be inclusive of minor parties but exclusive of extreme parties (Riera, 2016). Although nowadays, the most common institutional devices to avoid the proliferation of parties associated with very permissive rules are low-magnitude districts and legal thresholds (Carey and Hix 2011). This lower district magnitude opens the door for strategic voting and often reflects voting patterns seen in majoritarian systems. This is because in lower district magnitudes, given our highly polarized society, there is heated competition to gain seats as parties try to capture the interests of the polarized voters. This would result in some minor parties missing out and using the same theory for strategic voting in majoritarian systems, we can predict that a similar circumstance will occur in these low district magnitude PR systems as well.
When it comes to strategic voting there are some distinct cases where, given the arguments above, political scientists predict that strategic voting would take place, but it doesn’t. One case, in particular, is the US elections in 2000. As my arguments above have shown, if ‘Election-specific’ voters recognize that their party is highly unlikely to win or gain a seat in the office, it is probable that they would defect to the perceived major party (which is most closely associated with the party of their choice). However, in the US elections, voters in “safe states” who supported Nader, where Gore or Bush was projected to win easily, were less likely to abandon him and defect. This could be called an outlier due to what is perceived as the norm when discussing the reasons behind strategic voting, i.e. voters given this circumstance are highly likely to defect their most preferred party, “Those supporting Nader for expressive reasons were undeterred by the wasted vote appeal and were the most likely to remain loyal. These voters might not be voting so as to alter the outcome but instead to send a message or signal” (Rockler, 2013 p. 242). Thus, it is sufficient to say that there are exceptions in the study for causes of strategic voting and this case, in particular, is one of them.
In this essay, I’ve been able to examine the intentions of strategic voters and discuss, with sufficient evidence, the factors that come into play. These include representation threshold, information, district magnitude along with the polarization of interests, education and cognitive mobilization and lastly but most importantly the urge of voters to have a say on the policy outcome. I’ve been further able to demonstrate that strategic takes place not only in majoritarian systems but in both proportional and mixed-systems. However, it should be taken into consideration, that strategic voting might not arise even if all these factors are present (prevalent in the 2000 US election which is discussed above). To sum it up, strategic voting is a developing and fluctuating phenomenon. Different forms of strategic voting are being discovered in different electoral systems and as voters gain more knowledge about politics and voting implications, the study about the causation of strategic voting will get more and more nuanced. It is a voting behaviour, in my opinion, that should be studied extensively as it has the ability to shape the outcome of future elections and is likely to be the primary form of voting.