Wasted vote

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In electoral systems, a wasted vote is any vote that does not receive representation in the final election outcome. This includes lost votes (votes that are for a losing candidate or party), and excess votes (votes for winning candidates in excess of the minimum needed to win).[1] When applied to ranked-vote systems it includes exhausted votes (votes where none of the candidates the voter ranked are elected). Wasted votes can also be called unrepresented votes.

In plurality systems, wasted votes are the basis of the efficiency gap measure, where the shape of electoral districts (or their existence) can be quantified to show just how imperfect such a system is at allocating voter preferences. The efficiency gap has been called the most scrutinized method of measuring gerrymandering.[2]

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, the majority 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 had they been numbered.[3] In multi-member electorates, an exhausted ballot can elect candidates before becoming exhausted, meaning the vote isn't entirely wasted.

In PR elections representatives are elected at least in rough proportion to voter preferences, generally resulting in fewer wasted votes than in plurality voting.[4] The natural electoral thresholds used by single transferable voting (STV) can waste some votes. The more candidates to be elected from one of its multi-winner districts, the lower the threshold and the fewer votes wasted.

Also, different thresholds set by law waste votes. For example, the mixed proportional representation systems used in Germany and New Zealand exclude parties that fail to receive at least 5% of party votes (known as "second votes" in Germany) cast from receiving seats they would otherwise be eligible for based on their party vote count.

Despite suffering from wasted votes, small parties can sometimes wield disproportionate power in being necessary for the assembly of a coalition if they have any representation at all.[5]

A vote can also be thought of as wasted (at least partially) when a vote has been needlessly given to a candidate who is a lower preference for the voter than a higher-valued candidate.[6] This can occur through the redirection of preferences in ranked voting systems, but also can occur if a voter makes the wrong assessment and votes strategically for a candidate he thought was the least disliked of the candidates to win, later learning that his most preferred candidate did have a chance to win anyway.[7]

Rationale for wasted votes concept[edit]

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. They may lose confidence in the democratic process.

Many voters are intuitively familiar with the mechanics of wasted vote 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).

The term "wasted vote" is especially used by advocates of evaluative proportional representation (EPR) listed in proportional representation. In contrast to any existing voting method, Evaluative Proportional Representation explains how it does not waste any votes needlessly, quantitatively, or qualitatively.[8] Each EPR voter is invited to grade one or more of the candidate's suitability for office as one of: Excellent (ideal), Very Good, Good, Acceptable, Poor, or Reject (entirely unsuitable). Each citizen is assured that their one vote will equally increase the voting power of the elected member of the legislature who received either their highest grade, remaining highest grade, or proxy vote. Each elected member has a weighted vote in the legislative body exactly equal to the number of citizens' ballots exclusively counted for them.

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. In some electoral systems, it may be plausible for less-popular candidates to make similar appeals to supporters of more-popular candidates.

In many countries and voting systems, the term "wasted vote" is less commonly thought of as applying to votes for the second-placed candidate, but rather to votes for candidates finishing third or lower, even by official sources. This is a reflection of Duverger's Law, i.e. the institutionalization of a two-party system.

For instance, in Australia, the Australian Electoral Commission tells voters in educational materials that "there is no such thing as a wasted vote" due to preferential voting preventing votes finishing in third place or lower. However, a majority of votes in Australian lower house elections are still in actual fact wasted votes by finishing in second place or as excess votes for the winning candidate.

Example calculations of wasted votes[edit]

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 only with 2800 votes would B 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%).

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 his or her votes are transferred. If 600 of them go to A, A has a majority and is declared elected. but instead if his votes did not produce a majority winner, then C would be eliminated (or B is 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 Single Transferable Voting election for two seats, quota (droop) is 4400. 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.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ 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.
  2. ^ McGhee, Eric (2020). "Partisan Gerrymandering and Political Science". Annual Review of Political Science. 23: 171–185. doi:10.1146/annurev-polisci-060118-045351.
  3. ^ "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 2020-05-08.
  4. ^ Kenig, Ofer (January 26, 2015). "The Electoral Threshold, Wasted Votes, and Proportionality". Israel Democracy Institute. Retrieved September 20, 2018.
  5. ^ Piolatto, Amedeo (2011-06-01). "Plurality versus proportional electoral rule: Which is most representative of voters?". European Journal of Political Economy. 27 (2): 311–327. doi:10.1016/j.ejpoleco.2010.12.002. hdl:2445/116985. ISSN 0176-2680.
  6. ^ Bosworth, Stephen; Corr, Ander & Leonard, Stevan (July 8, 2019). "Legislatures Elected by Evaluative Proportional Representation (EPR): an Algorithm; Endnote 8". Journal of Political Risk. 7 (8). Retrieved August 19, 2019.
  7. ^ "Does Strategic Voting Actually Work?". 30 August 2021.
  8. ^ Bosworth, S. et al., 2020.Electing Legislatures by Evaluative Proportional Representation (EPR): An Algorithm. https://www.jpolrisk.com/legislatures-elected-by-evaluative-proportional-representation-epr-an-algorithm-v3/. 14 February 2023.

External links[edit]


  • Amy, Douglas J. (2000). Behind the Ballot Box: A Citizen's Guide to Voting Systems. Praeger/Greenwood. ISBN 0-275-96585-6.
  1. ^ Petry, Eric. "How the Efficiency Gap Works" (PDF). www.brennancenter.org. Retrieved August 22, 2021.