Now that the election season is over and we have a few days break before the next cycle, let’s take a few minutes to consider some features of voting as we know it. In particular, how do we decide how we will vote. After, all, that is one of the most important decision theory problems we can face.

We assume voting is secret, but for most of the life of the USA, this was not the case. Parties printed their own ballots and made them large and in different colors so that goons, I mean poll watchers, could easily monitor which way a person voted. In fact, there was significant opposition to secret balloting, which was imported from Australia, because real men were proud of how they voted (of course women did not vote). Getting to the polling place could result in a severe beating and even death if you carried the wrong color ballot, and the parties did not want to give up that power to dissuade the opposition.

Another assumption is that we generally decide between two major parties and a few minor parties are tagging along for comedy relief.

Let’s stick with that assumption for a moment. And consider a related business decision. To simplify things, assume a one-dimensional space — a long beach. Some vendors are selling hot dogs on the beach and they can walk north or south to establish a temporary sales place. Where should they each go to maximize sales? The usual answer to this introductory puzzle is that they should end up somewhere in the middle of the beach, north or south, and they set up camp immediately next to each other.

Going back to politics, Nixon famously said that a politician on the right must lean far enough to the left to capture more votes, and that this required shifting to the left sufficiently far to anger his constituents on the right. The same obviously goes for someone on the left who must lean to the right. We see this every election.

Which brings us back to the hot dog vendors. They know where the center of the long beach is because they can see the ends. But how does a politician know where to position such that a maximum number of votes is assured? Certainly both parties will end up next to each other, and even overlapping per Nixon’s advice, but where is the middle?

Much money is spent on polls and other tools to establish that sweet spot.

However, I suggest that the politician’s dilemma is an opening for a sophisticated voter with a long view on history to have more power than a single vote. My suggestion requires that the minor parties garner only a few percent of the total vote, and that one of the majors is virtually guaranteed elections. Then suppose you, the smart voter with a long view, wants more care given to the environment. If that is important to you, then voting straight Green party contributes to meeting your desires in two ways: (1) the majors will look at how many votes the minors are getting in an attempt to shift policy to pick up more votes in the future; and (2) a large showing by any minor party is looked at carefully by professionals to see if the body politic has changed under them. A large showing by the Green party will naturally cause the majors both to announce new initiatives aimed at saving the environment.

So while common knowledge, and advice from professional politicians, is that voting for a minor party is simply throwing your vote away, I can argue that indeed it is throwing away the short term opportunity to contribute to a specific candidate’s victory, but it is not wasting a vote. It is is investing for a better future.

This is meant to be a thought-provoking exercise. I am not seriously advocating anything for anyone except that I always encourage thoughtful analysis. In fact, I will delighted if a reader can effectively refute the value of my suggestion.