In electoral systems, a wasted vote is any vote that does not receive representation in the final election outcome. This includes lost votes for a losing candidate or party, and excess votes for winning candidates in excess of the minimum needed to win. When applied to ranked-vote systems, it includes exhausted votes, votes where none of the candidates the voter ranked are elected. Wasted vote share changes from one election to another depending on voter behavior. Wasted votes can lead to political apathy.
Wasted votes in plurality voting
In plurality systems, wasted votes are a basis of the efficiency gap measure, which quantifies the bias in allocating voter preferences due to the shape of electoral districts. A non-zero efficiency gap indicates disproportionally: more wasted votes for one party. The efficiency gap has been called the most scrutinized method of measuring gerrymandering. In countries with a two-party system, the term "wasted vote" sometimes refers to votes for candidates finishing third or lower, which is related to the Duverger's Law.
Wasted votes in proportional representation
In proportional electoral systems, representatives are elected in rough proportion to voter preferences, generally resulting in fewer wasted votes than in plurality voting. In proportional representation, the wasted vote is considered the total number of voters not represented by any party sitting in the legislature, also called unrepresented voters.
The wasted vote share is calculated as: where is the vote share of unrepresented party and is the overall number of unrepresented parties. The wasted vote can be given as a percentage of the total number of votes or as the absolute number of votes. Wasted votes in proportional representation increase with a higher electoral threshold, which is one of the ways to reduce political fragmentation. Even with no explicit electoral threshold, the natural electoral threshold causes some wasted votes.
On occasion, wasted votes in proportional representation have resulted in a party winning an outright majority of seats without winning an outright majority of votes, the sort of outcome that a proportional voting system is supposed to prevent. For instance, in the 2002 Turkish general election, the AKP party won more than two-thirds of the seats in the Turkish Parliament with just 34.28 percent of the vote. In the 2013 Bavarian federal state election in Germany, the CSU party failed to obtain a majority of votes but won an outright majority of seats.
Wasted vote in ranked voting
Ranked voting almost always produces fewer wasted votes than the number of wasted votes in plurality systems because ranked vote systems, by design, redirect what would otherwise be a wasted vote to another candidate. However, in single member ranked voting, a significant share of votes will still become wasted votes in the final result, by being losing votes or excess winning votes in the final runoff. Also, even votes that are not fully wasted are, in a sense, partially wasted by electing candidates that were not the voter's first preference.
When not all candidates are ranked, ranked vote systems can produce exhausted ballots – ballots that could have been redirected to lower preferences if the ballot has been fully ranked. In multi-member ranked voting, wasted votes are less likely compared to single-member ranked voting.
A vote can also be thought of as at least partially wasted when a vote has been given to a candidate who is a lower preference for the voter than a higher-ranked candidate. This can occur through the redirection of preferences in ranked voting systems but also can occur if a voter makes the wrong assessment during strategic voting. For instance, the Australian Electoral Commission tells voters that "there is no such thing as a wasted vote" due to preferential voting preventing votes from finishing in third place or lower. However, a large share of votes in Australian lower-house elections are excess votes for the winning candidate or partially wasted votes which go towards electing a lower-ranked preference.
Wasted vote in cardinal voting
Wasted votes and strategic voting
Wasted votes can lead to strategic voting via the dynamics of "swing seats" and "safe seats". Election campaigns focus on swing seats because votes gained in swing seats are more likely to result in increased representation and thus not be wasted. Votes gained in safe seats, if they do not change the outcome, become losing votes (if held by the opposing party) or excess winning votes (if held by the party itself). In election campaigns, a leading candidate may appeal to voters who support a less popular candidate to vote instead for the leading candidate for tactical reasons, on the basis that a vote for their preferred candidate is likely to be wasted. Excess votes for more popular candidates allow less popular candidates to make similar appeals to supporters of more popular candidates.
An electoral system which reduces the number of wasted votes can be considered desirable on grounds of fairness or because of the danger that voters who feel their votes make no difference may feel detached from their government. Such voters may lose confidence in the democratic process.
Example calculations of wasted votes
Consider an election where candidates A, B and C receive 6000, 3100 and 701 votes respectively.
If this is a plurality voting election for a single seat, Candidate A has a plurality of votes (actually a majority) and is therefore elected. The wasted votes are:
- All 3801 votes for candidates B and C, since these "lost votes" did not elect any candidate
- In the wider definition, the 2899 excess votes for candidate A are wasted, since A would still have won with only 3101 votes. Therefore, 6700 out of 9801 votes are wasted.
If the same votes for A, B and C are cast in a d'Hondt method election for 2 seats, then the seats are split 8-4-0 for A-B-C. The wasted votes are:
- All 701 votes for party C, which won no seats.
- In the wide definition, also wasted are:
- 399 votes for A, since A would still have won eight seats with only 5601 votes against 3100 and 701 (with 5600 votes for A, the last seat would go to C)
- 299 votes for B, since with only 2800 votes, B would lose the last seat to C
A majority of votes are always wasted (in the wider sense) in a single-seat plurality election, unless there are exactly two candidates and the margin of victory is exactly one vote. Multi-seat constituencies reduce the number of wasted votes as long as proportional representation is used. (When used with winner-take-all systems, as with the US Electoral College, multi-member constituencies may see the wasted vote reach or exceed 50 percent).
Consider an election where candidates A, B, C and D receive 6000, 3100, 2400 and 1701 votes respectively.
If this is an instant-runoff voting election for a single seat, no one has a majority of votes so Candidate D is eliminated and the votes for them are transferred. If 600 of them go to A, A has a majority and is declared elected; if instead the vote transfer from D did not produce a majority winner, then C would be eliminated (or B if C's vote total has surpassed B's) and either A or B (or C) would have a majority and would be declared a winner. The wasted votes are:
- 6600 at the most and potentially as few as 4300
If this is a vote using the single transferable vote for two seats, the Droop quota is 4400. Candidate A has that in the first count and is elected. Transfer of A's surplus may give B a quota and victory; otherwise, D is eliminated. It is likely that the second seat would be filled by someone with quota, hence wasted votes would have to be less than a third of votes cast. It two win seats by having quota, the wasted votes are:
- less than 4400
It could be that the second seat is not filled by a candidate with quota, but by the candidate who is merely the most popular when the field of candidates thins to two. If so, the number of effective votes could be no greater than 4101, but that would assume a great number of exhausted votes. But even so, the wasted votes could be:
- no more than 4101
Examples of high wasted votes in proportional representation
In the 1993 Polish election, the wasted vote reached 34.4 percent. In the Russian parliamentary elections in 1995, more than 45 percent of votes were wasted. In the 2002 Turkish general election as many as 46.33 percent (14,545,438) of votes were cast for parties that went unrepresented in the parliament. In the Ukrainian elections of March 2006, 22 percent of voters were effectively disenfranchised. In the 2007 Ukrainian parliamentary election held under the same system, fewer voters supported minor parties and the total percentage of disenfranchised voters fell to about 12 percent. In Bulgaria, 24 percent of voters cast their ballots for parties that would not gain representation in the elections of 1991 and 2013. In Germany in 2013 15.7 percent or 6.9 million votes were unrepresented. In New Zealand, the wasted vote was 4.62 percent in 2017 and in 2020 it was 7.71 percent. During Danish general elections on Faroe Islands, the wasted vote reached 51.3 percent in 2015 and 46.2 percent in 2019, while in Greenland in 2015 21.96 percent and in 2019 34.2 percent of voters were not represented in the Parliament of Denmark. In the 2019 European Parliament election in France, 19.79 percent of voters were unrepresented. In the 2020 Slovak parliamentary election, 28.39 percent of all valid votes did not gain representation. In the 2021 Czech legislative election, 19.76 percent of voters were not represented. In the 2022 Slovenian parliamentary election, 24 percent of the vote went to parties that did not reach the electoral threshold. In the German federal state of Saarland 2022 election, the total wasted vote was 22.3 percent. In the 2015 Israeli legislative election, the wasted vote was 7.1 percent In the 2022 Latvian parliamentary election, unrepresented voters reached 29 percent.
Examples of low wasted votes in proportional representation
In the 2015 Danish general election, where MMP was used, the wasted vote calculated by the formula above in Denmark proper was 0.92 percent. In the 2018 Swedish general election, the wasted vote was 1.5 percent. In the Netherlands, the wasted vote was 1.55 percent in 2017 and 1.99 percent in 2021. The low percentage in the Netherlands was caused by a low explicit electoral threshold of 0.67 percent. In the 2005 New Zealand general election, the wasted vote was 1.5 percent. The 2019 Swiss federal election had a wasted vote share of 1.3 percent, caused by natural electoral thresholds.
Legal status of wasted votes
High wasted vote in plurality systems as measured by the efficiency gap has been found illegal in some cases.
For proportional representation, the German Federal Constitutional Court rejected in 2011 and in 2014 an electoral threshold for the European Parliament that led to wasted votes based on the principle of one person, one vote. In the case of Turkey, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe declared in 2004 the 10% electoral threshold excessive and asked Turkey to lower it, which would reduce wasted votes. On 30 January 2007, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the 10 percent electoral threshold in Turkey does not violate the right to free elections guaranteed by the European Convention of Human Rights. It held, however, that this same threshold could violate the Convention if not justified. It was justified in the case of Turkey in order to stabilize the volatile political situation over recent decades.
- Stephanopoulos, Nicholas; McGhee, Eric (2014). "Partisan Gerrymandering and the Efficiency Gap". University of Chicago Law Review. 82: 831–900. SSRN 2457468. Wasted votes and efficiency gap are defined pp. 850–852.
- "2020 General Election – Official Results and Statistics". ElectionResults.govt.nz. Electoral Commission. 30 November 2020.
- McGhee, Eric (2020). "Partisan Gerrymandering and Political Science". Annual Review of Political Science. 23: 171–185. doi:10.1146/annurev-polisci-060118-045351.
- Kenig, Ofer (26 January 2015). "The Electoral Threshold, Wasted Votes, and Proportionality". Israel Democracy Institute. Retrieved 20 September 2018.
- Electoral System Change for a More Democratic Malaysia? Challenges and Options, Helen Ting Mu Hung
- Ethnicity and Elections in Turkey: Party Politics and the Mobilization of Swing Voters, Gul Akdag, 2014
- Partisan and apportionment bias in creating a predominant party system, Ali Çarkoğlu, Deniz Aksen, Political Geography, 2019
- "33rd DÁIL GENERAL ELECTION 8 February 2020 Election Results" (PDF). Houses of the Oireachtas. pp. 68–79. Archived (PDF) from the original on 15 May 2020. Retrieved 8 May 2020.
- Bosworth, Stephen; Corr, Ander & Leonard, Stevan (8 July 2019). "Legislatures Elected by Evaluative Proportional Representation (EPR): an Algorithm; Endnote 8". Journal of Political Risk. 7 (8). Retrieved 19 August 2019.
- "Does Strategic Voting Actually Work?". 30 August 2021.
- Bosworth, S. et al., 2020. Electing Legislatures by Evaluative Proportional Representation (EPR): An Algorithm. 14 February 2023.
- Toker, Cem (2008). "Why Is Turkey Bogged Down?" (PDF). Turkish Policy Quarterly. Turkish Policy. Retrieved 27 June 2013.
- "Die Fünf-Prozent-Hürde bei Bundestagswahlen". 5 August 2021.
- "Voľby 2020: Vo voľbách prepadlo historicky najviac hlasov". 2 March 2020.
- "Results 2020 Slovak parliamentary election". Statistical Office of the Slovak Republic.
- "Results 2021 Czech legislative election". Czech Statistical Office.
- "Fünf-Prozent-Klausel: Wozu sie im Saarland bei der Landtagswahl führt".
- "Results 2022 Saarland state election". German State Statistical Officer.(in German)
- The Electoral Threshold, Wasted Votes, and Proportionality
- "Who can vote and for whom? How the Dutch electoral system works". DutchNews.nl. 30 January 2017. Retrieved 18 November 2019.
- Wines, Michael (21 November 2016). "Judges Find Wisconsin Redistricting Unfairly Favored Republicans". New York Times. Archived from the original on 2 January 2022. Retrieved 22 November 2016.
- "Karlsruhe vs. EU electoral reform could go into the third round". EURACTIV MEDIA NETWORK BV. 18 May 2022.(in German)
- [Council of Europe Resolution 1380 (2004)]
- Yumak and Sadak v. Turkey, no. 10226/03.
- Negating Pluralist Democracy: The European Court of Human Rights Forgets the Rights of the Electors, KHRP Legal Review 11 (2007)