Elections as the ultimatum game

August 23, 2008

In large groups which rely on elections of delegates, it is often the case that the field of candidates (or at least the field of “credible” candidates) represents a narrow set of policy options. In such a situation, many voters have the option of voting for the credible candidate whom they least disfavor, an act known at lesser-evil voting, or abstaining[1].

The discussion regarding the preferred choice of action in this case can become quite emotional and vitriolic.

One argument against lesser-evil voting is moral. This point of view holds voting as expressing the political views of the voter. Thus, voting for a candidate who does not represent the voter’s views is considered wrong (immoral, anti-democratic, mendacious). I am going to dismiss this argument. In my view, voting is not an action with inherent moral value – it should not be seen as a direct expression of beliefs, but as a political tool. Voting (or not voting) is one tool of political action that is available to members of certain groups. Those members are morally bound to use that tool (like any other political tool) to shape the policies of the group for good. The question is, therefore, which course of action is most likely to produce good results: lesser-evil voting or abstaining?

The argument advanced by the promoters of lesser-evil voting is straightforward. While the range of policy options represented by the credible candidates is narrow, it is not non-existent: some candidates are better than others – and one of them is the best. Voting for that candidate increases the chance that that candidate is elected, and thus increases the chance that good, or at least better, public policy is be implemented during the upcoming term of office.

This argument is sometimes countered by opponents of lesser-evil voting by denying there are any significant differences between the credible candidates (e.g., Ralph Nader famously referring to the Democratic and Republican parties as tweedledee and tweedledum). Factually, this is a weak argument – narrow as the range of policies promoted by candidates may be, there are often significant implications to the differences within that narrow range. This, therefore, allows supporters of lesser-evil voting to portray all their opponents as all-or-nothing purists.

There is, however, a pragmatic reason for avoiding lesser-evil voting. This reason is not an over-riding argument which negates the validity of the argument for lesser-evil, but it indicates that an equilibrium between opposing objectives must be reached, and thus lesser-evil voting should be assessed on a case-by-case basis rather than adopted as a blanket policy. As a corollary, disagreements as to whether lesser-evil voting should be used in a particular election should be discussed by comparing the strengths of the opposing forces, rather than by applying corrosive moral or ad-hominem terms.

The pragmatic reason for abstaining becomes apparent by drawing an analogy between the elections setup and repeated rounds of the Ultimatum game. In the analogy, the lesser-evil politician (or to be more exact, the system that brings that politician to the position of a credible candidate) plays the role of the first player. He sets an ultimatum by presenting his policies (as well as past deeds and personality). The set of voters attracted to him (i.e., those voters who find him as the lesser-evil candidate) is the second player – they can either vote for him, accepting the political package offered, or reject it by abstaining. In the latter case, both the politician (his supporting, nominating system) and the set of voters attracted to him lose.

Seeing elections in this way, the argument for abstaining is clear: the threat of abstention exists in the mind of the politician (or his nominating system), prodding him to present a political package that is more pleasant to the voters. It is thus rational for voters to abstain in some cases, even under the extreme assumption that the ultimatum is completely rigid – i.e., that political package associated with a candidate is completely fixed in advance. In reality, of course, the threat of abstention can change both the positions presented before the elections and the policies pursued after the elections (the latter, through the threat of abstention in subsequent elections) – making the threat of abstention even more effective than in the theoretical ultimatum game.

Accepting this view does not resolve the practical question of whether to abstain or to use lesser-evil voting at any specific election. Doing so would involve a speculative analysis of the effects of each of the two possible courses of action. Any result of such an analysis would necessarily be subjective and uncertain. Holding a strong view one way or the other on this matter seems, therefore, unjustified.


[1] Voting for a non-credible candidate is, as far as the elections results are concerned, the same as abstaining. It does have the added effect of signaling the true preference of the voter, but that purpose can be achieved in other ways, and does not affect the results of the elections.

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2 Responses to “Elections as the ultimatum game”


  1. […] bookmarks tagged credible Elections as the ultimatum game saved by 5 others     ktetis bookmarked on 08/23/08 | […]

  2. Erin McJ Says:

    Glad to see I wasn’t the first to have this idea :).

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