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How To Decide Who To Vote For (Quickly)

Every year I spend hours toiling over a sample ballot trying to figure out who to vote for. This year I’m applying the principles of lean decisions to voting.

If you’re new to lean decisions, a lean decision is one which uses the minimum amount of information and process needed to make a successful decision.

Making a Lean Voting Decision

Making a lean voting decision means spending less time and effort deciding who to vote for without compromising the outcome.

If a shortcut gives you the same result, take it. If a technique helps you think faster, use it.

A core principle of lean decisions is to increase or reduce the effort you exert making a decision based on:

  • the influence you have over the outcome
  • the difference between the best and worst outcome
  • the value you receive from the outcome

The greater these are, the more effort you should exert; the lesser they are, the less effort you should exert.

How Much Does Your Vote Count?

When you go shopping for a car, you evaluate your options, then pick one to purchase. Assuming your loan was approved, you can drive the car you selected off the lot immediately.

Voting is different. When making a voting decision, your decision contributes to the final selection, but does not determine it. You exert influence rather than the power of choice.

Think of your vote as a preference, not a choice.

But not all votes count equally. The weight of your vote depends on how many other people are voting and the structure of the voting system.

Spend more effort deciding who to vote for in small or tight elections. Your vote has more influence in these elections.

How To Decide Who To Vote For

Use the following strategies to decide who to vote for. These are in order of least effort to most effort.

1. Vote for Your Party

I’ve always been against the straight party ticket, but as a lean decision, it has its merits. It’s quick, and if your party shares most of your viewpoints, you’ll likely vote how you would have doing a deeper analysis.

Candidates come and go, but parties have staying power. By aligning yourself to a party, you mitigate the risk of not knowing how new candidates will perform in office and can evaluate the effectiveness of your voting decisions across multiple candidates.

For governments which require coalitions to get things done (and which democracy doesn’t?), voting for a party puts all your votes behind the same coalition.

2. Rely on Endorsements

If your views don’t overlap enough with any of the political parties, look for other organizations that do provide enough overlap and see if they give endorsements of candidates.

By relying on a trusted third party, you minimize the amount of time you need to spend researching candidates. An organization can spend weeks analyzing each candidate and make an informed recommendation. Why redo all their work?

Research organizations to figure out who you trust and who aligns with your views.

For increased accuracy, choose 3-4 organizations and triangulate. If three organizations you trust all recommend the same candidate, you can be confident you’d likely choose that candidate too. If the organizations differ in who they recommend, then you can dig deeper.

3. Vote For or Against Issues

If you have one or two defining issues that can be used to put candidates in the Yes or No column, you can use that to make your decision.

To be successful at this, you should pick issues which are highly correlated with other issues you care about. You should be able to predict how a candidate will act in office on the major decisions you care about. If you can’t, use the issue to influence your decision, but not to make it.

4. Score Your Candidates

If none of the shortcuts above have worked, it’s time to do a proper analysis.

Score your candidates by making a list of your important issues and rating each candidate on how likely they’ll make decisions you like on that issue. Add up the ratings for each candidate, then vote with the candidate with the highest score.

Don’t Agonize

In the end, your vote is one among many.¬†You don’t need to make the perfect decision.

In fact, your accuracy doesn’t need to be that high. Assuming there is a perfect candidate for an election, if each voter only had a 51% accuracy in choosing the right candidate, the combination of thousands of voters voting increases that accuracy to over 90%.

The wisdom of the crowd applies to elections too.

What shortcuts or techniques do you use to decide who to vote for?


  1. I voted down a party line..not so much for a party, but against the established Two Parties. These issues can get complicated and what’s even more complicated is predicting what a candidate will do when in office, or even an incumbent, given that ideologies are often compromised in practice. Fortunately, (or unfortunately) the Two Party lines also happen to be very close to each other in practice on issues, both supporting the perpetual growth paradigm.

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