Most of us find “bullet voting” – where you vote for fewer candidates than you’re allowed to – at least a little confusing. If you vote for one or two of your second choices, does it hurt the chances of your first choices? Everybody remembers the 2000 presidential election, where some argue that Ralph Nader lost the election for Al Gore by “splitting” the Democratic vote.
In the 2014 Palo Alto City Council race, there are 12 candidates for 5 seats, so we each have 5 votes. The important difference between this and a presidential election is, it doesn’t matter who comes in first, only who comes in lower than 5th.
Suppose of the 12 candidates, you really like A and B; your second choices would be C and D; and you oppose Y and Z. Everybody else you’re either neutral on, or else just don’t have enough time to research. The questions are:
(1) does a vote for C hurt A and B? and
(2) does a vote for H (a “neutral”) help or hurt?
Well, (1) could happen, theoretically. But for such a “second choice” C vote to hurt “first choice” B, then B and C would have to be exactly tied in fifth place. In an election where thousands of votes are cast for each candidate, that’s a pretty unlikely scenario, and you can’t know it before the election anyhow, because there aren’t good advance polls for City Council races.
You’re happy with both B and C, and you want as many people as possible to win against Y and Z. So if it were me I’d vote for all four of A, B, C and D. The chances of “splitting” between them seems a lot lower than the benefit of having the four people I truly support succeed.
The “neutral” H vote (2) is trickier. You don’t care whether H is elected or not, but you don’t want H to come in 5th ahead of ABCD. On the other hand, you also don’t want Y Z to come in 5th ahead of H! This is where the game theory gets complicated: which combinations do you guess are more likely, and how much do you really support A and B relative to opposing Y and Z?
That’s too complicated for me. So I lean for simple: vote for all the people I actually want on Council, and don’t vote for anybody else. Easy.
The game theory of voting for my “neutrals” is so complicated it seems to me like a random vote, and I don’t believe in that, even if I’ve got an extra vote available. Some other voter either better informed or with a stronger opinion can decide on that person. So this election I’ll probably vote for more than one candidate, but fewer than five.
For a more careful discussion, a gentleman named Larry Davidson wrote a good blog post some years ago.