Local government elections: Why it’s rational to vote with your heart

An advert for the Democratic Alliance appeared in my Facebook feed recently. The ad declared that the 1 November local government elections were a two-horse race between the DA and the ANC and appealed to me not to “split the vote” by casting my ballot for one of the other parties. 

Meanwhile, the same party has finally got round to putting up some posters in my neighbourhood in Cape Town. “DA or ANC,” the posters proclaim, “Your Choice.” To its credit, the posters appear in all three of the most widely spoken languages in the city. The message that there are only two voting choices however, although familiar and predictable, is obviously false at one level and fundamentally anti-democratic at another.

None of what I have to say is particularly new or original. I expect most people have had similar thoughts at one time or another. I simply want to argue for a return to the first principles of citizenship, and to convince you to vote in a way that simultaneously promotes the interests of your community and the good health of our democracy; not in a way that promotes the interests of politicians above all while weakening democracy. 

Citizens in democracies often face a version of the following problem when deciding who to vote for: the Yellow Party best represents my concerns and I trust its members more than any other party. It is my party of conviction. But the probability that the Yellow Party will win a majority of votes is vanishingly small. I don’t like the Red Party, which has a fair chance of winning a majority, but I prefer it to the Green Party, which also has a fair chance of winning a majority. Should I vote Yellow or Red? 

The prevailing wisdom seems to be that I should vote Red. Voting Yellow, the reasoning goes, amounts, at best, to throwing away my vote because Yellow has no realistic chance of winning. At worst, it’s a vote withheld from Red, which is effectively a vote given to Green. Thus, in the US, people who want to vote for anyone other than the Republican or Democratic parties have tended to be browbeaten into lining up behind one or the other of these two parties. 

This article from 2016 about the US election is a great example (it’s also deliciously ironic in hindsight, given that Hilary Clinton ended up losing to Donald Trump). Voting Red in my hypothetical scenario would be described as voting “tactically”, while voting Yellow would be called “voting with your heart”. The suggestion is that the former is intelligent, mature and sophisticated, whereas the latter is quixotic, childish and idealistic. In fact, although voting tactically may seem like a safer option, its effect on democratic citizenship is corrosive. Meanwhile, there are a couple of very good reasons to “vote with your heart”. 

In modern democracies, voting gives citizens an influence over government that is, at best, indirect. If you decide to vote for your party of conviction in the South African local government elections in 2021, the indirect influence of your vote will travel along two paths. 

Neither of these two paths depends on the party winning the most votes, yet they will both promote your convictions in tangible ways. Firstly, during the campaign season, if the parties with a high probability of winning a majority know that you do not intend to vote for them and why, they will have an incentive to shift their policies accordingly to avoid losing your vote to your party of conviction. 

Alternatively, if they lose votes to your party of conviction in this election, they will have an incentive to shift their policies in your favour in the next election. Secondly, when the election is over and politicians shift their attention from campaigning to governing, the more votes won by your party of conviction, the more likely it is that one of its members will occupy a key office in the administration and the more power it will have to negotiate coalitions. 

I am not suggesting that you place complete trust in any political party. It is vanishingly unlikely, of course, that any party represents your concerns exactly or will fulfil its campaign promises entirely. Politics is, after all, the art of compromise and voting is a political act. Nevertheless, politicians are people and political parties are associated with certain principles. Therefore, it is possible to evaluate your voting options on the basis of people’s trustworthiness and parties’ principles. It is not necessary to consider the likelihood that they will win the most votes. 

I am also not advocating partisan voting, which I take to be voting for the interests of one part of society at the probable expense of other parts. What I am advocating is voting sincerely for the interests of the whole of society as you see them. The difference is not subtle: it is the difference between corruption and integrity.

There are good reasons, then, to “vote with your heart”. Yet tactical voting still might seem like a good idea. After all, the Red Party may still have some positive qualities, and then there is also the Green Party to consider. Voting Red may seem like the safer option. The problem is that a tactical vote may seem to be just a vote against a particular party but it is also, more fundamentally, a vote against democracy and for a de facto aristocracy. 

This is because tactical voting, by definition, disproportionately benefits big parties at the expense of smaller ones. Big parties become bigger and the smaller ones limp along or die out. As the bigger parties become more entrenched, selection processes in these parties play an ever greater role in deciding who gets put into the government. But, unlike voting, these processes are opaque, beyond the reach of citizens and may have no connection whatsoever to the substantial needs of the community. This is not a democratic way of choosing a government and it devalues every citizen’s vote. 

The connections between what citizens need, what parties promise and how citizens vote are very fragile. These connections depend on citizens for their protection and they are degraded by tactical voting. The more cryptic the link between our substantial needs and how we vote becomes, the lower the incentive for politicians to address these needs and the greater their incentive to use identity, smear campaigns and other divisive strategies, including bribery, to gain an edge over their rivals. Politicians will shift their focus from winning votes from citizens to beating their political opponents if that seems like the best way to get the most votes. 

For a political party, that is what winning an election means: getting the most votes. But as an ordinary citizen, winning an election means getting a government that serves your community. The best way to get a government like this is to vote for the party whose members are the most trustworthy and whose policies come closest to addressing the community’s real needs. Whether it actually ends up winning the most votes is just not that important. 

Voting tactically may seem like a realistic and mature option, but it compromises the integrity of your vote and is corrosive to the long-term health of democracy. At the same time, choosing to vote for your party of conviction will have a tangible effect on the decisions of the government and will also protect the health of democracy.

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Simon Abbott
Simon Abbott is a writer living in Cape Town

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