The May 19th primary election will give Philadelphia’s voters an opportunity that is very rare in American elections: the ability to vote for more than one candidate for the same office. Typical elections, like those for President and for Mayor, only allow voters to cast one vote. This makes sense, since only one person can hold those offices. But for City Council at-large, primary voters in each party get to cast five votes for the same position.
There are seven at-large members on City Council, and both parties get to put forward five candidates in the general election for those seven seats. In practical terms, the general election is a formality for the Democratic candidates (who will all but certainly get elected in November), but vitally important for the five Republican candidates, who are left to vie for just two seats. The primary election serves to select those five candidates from each party. With seventeen Democrats and seven Republicans appearing on the ballot in May, voters will have difficult decisions to make with their five votes.
How to use your five votes is important, yet often neglected. Actually, in some cases, it may be a voter’s best strategy to not use all of their votes. Here’s the best way to use (or not use) your votes.
But who to vote for isn’t the only thing that Philadelphia voters need to figure out by May 19th. How to use those five votes is equally important, yet often neglected. Actually, in some cases, it may be a voter’s best strategy to not use all of their votes. I’m here to help explain the best way to use (or not use) your votes. But first: How is it even possible that a voter’s best strategy might be to not cast all of his or her votes?
Our system for voting for Council-at-large is called “plurality at large.” In this system, each voter gets five votes to distribute among the eligible candidates. Votes can’t be stacked, meaning that you can’t vote for the same person more than once. Furthermore, there is no requirement to use all five votes; in fact, you don’t have to use any of them (more on this in a bit). This system is susceptible to strategic voting: Casting votes that don’t correspond to a voter’s true preferences in order to achieve a more desirable outcome.
I know what you’re thinking: Why wouldn’t I vote for the candidates I prefer? Why would I ever vote for someone else? It’s definitely strange, but in many elections this may be your best strategy. Ideally, elections should be set up so that every person votes their true preference. In a classic two-party, two-candidate election, this is straightforward. Obama or Romney? Corbett or Wolf? These questions are easily answered by voters. But, when there are more than two candidates, it is possible for a voter’s best strategy to be to vote for someone they actually don’t prefer.
As an example, recall the 2000 Presidential election. That election has gone down in history as Bush v. Gore, but there were other significant candidates in the race as well, most notably Pat Buchanan (whose alphabetic superiority to Al Gore may have handed Bush both Florida and the election), and Ralph Nader (whose mere existence may have had the same effect). Neither Buchanan nor Nader stood a snowball’s chance of actually winning the election. But they still had many thousands of people who strongly preferred one of them to either Bush or Gore. For those supporters, voting for Bush or Gore, rather than their true preference, made much more sense strategically than voting for Nader or Buchanan since, while their first preference wasn’t viable, they could at least help elect their second choice.
Our system for electing council-at-large candidates is vulnerable to similar strategic voting. The hard part in an election this complicated is knowing which strategy to use. The only strategy that makes no sense in any situation is not casting any votes. If you’re reading this and you don’t have any idea who to support (or at least who to oppose), stop reading this and go do some research on the candidates. I’ll be here when you’re done.
Ok, now that that’s out of the way, let’s tackle a few different strategies. First, and perhaps most obvious, is when to use all five of your votes. If you have a strong preference for five candidates (say, the Democratic Party slate of the four incumbents—Blondell Reynolds-Brown, Wilson Goode, Bill Greenlee, and Ed Neilson—plus Sherrie Cohen), and are generally indifferent to all of the others, then vote for each one of those candidates and call it a day. Well, vote for all of the other races, and then call it a day.
If you’re a fan of more than five candidates (using simple examples, supporting the six female candidates or the eight minority candidates in the race) or if you’re opposed to some number of candidates more than you’re in favor of anyone else (maybe the idea of Democratic party-insiders hand-picking our Council members isn’t all that appealing to you), then you still want to use all five of your votes. But in this scenario, you need to vote strategically. Much like people who preferred Nader but voted for Gore, you’ll need to decide who among the candidates you support has a realistic chance at winning and vote accordingly. Mind you, this doesn’t necessary mean voting for the five that you think have the best chance of winning. The word “chance” is there for a reason, and given how little information voters have from the media in terms of polling, use caution when deciding that a candidate does or does not have a realistic chance to win.
If it turns out that fewer than five of your preferred candidates are viable, then you have a choice to make. Let’s say you want to back the incumbents and toe the party line, but you just don’t think that Cohen can win. If all you really care about is those four winning, then vote for those four and either vote for Cohen or don’t use your fifth vote. All that fifth vote can do is elevate someone else to knock off one of your preferred candidates.
If you’re like a lot of us, though, there are some candidates on the ballot that you would very much prefer not end up writing our laws for the next four years. You may need to pick a fifth candidate to vote for that you’re not really a fan of, but that has a realistic shot at winning, to help knock off the candidate that you don’t like. In this situation, whatever you do, don’t waste this fifth vote; using it to express displeasure with one candidate is just as strong as expressing approval of another. This strategy can be extended to situations where you only have strong negative preferences—in other words, you don’t care who wins as long as it’s not, say, the current crop of incumbents. In that case, vote strategically for the five candidates that you think have the best chance of beating them.
So far, we’ve only discussed ways to use all five of your votes. But there are scenarios in which you should use only some of your votes. The most extreme example is called “bullet voting,” in which a voter, despite having multiple votes to use, only casts one of them for one candidate. This is a powerful way to use (and not use) votes because it has the effect of disproportionately elevating one candidate.
Bullet voting is best used when you are only really interested in seeing one candidate win; you could care less what happens with the other four seats. Say, for example, that all that really matters to you is that Paul Steinke wins. Bullet voting does two things to help you: It increases his vote total, and it doesn’t increase anyone else’s. In an election with such imperfect information as this one, it’s impossible to know who’s going to win and who isn’t. When you vote, you have to assume the knife’s-edge scenario for your candidate: In this case, Steinke is sitting in sixth place, far behind the top four but only one vote behind the fifth place candidate prior to your vote. If you bullet vote, you can bring Steinke into a tie for fifth, at which point he at least has a chance to win. But if you don’t bullet vote and you happen to vote for the candidate who’s currently in fifth as well as Steinke, then you’ve accomplished absolutely nothing; your candidate is still in sixth, one vote behind fifth, and destined to lose.
There are variations on these major strategies that can be employed in situations where voters prefer or oppose any numbers of candidates. Which specific strategy you use is up to you, but the important thing is that you vote strategically. Knowing who to vote for isn’t enough; when it comes to the Council-at-large race (and similar races like our absurd judicial elections), you need to know how to vote for them as well.
For more information about voting, candidates and issues in the May primary, see the Committee of Seventy’s voting guide.