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Imagine you go out with your friends and everyone is ordering ice cream. There are three options: chocolate, coffee, and vanilla. You like coffee, but you think most people will find it absurd you like coffee ice cream. So, you chose vanilla instead, because you think it’s the most popular option. That is how strategic voting works.

Strategic voting can happen in any type of online poll, whether it is for a school election, a product review, or a social media post. There are several negative implications of strategic voting in online polls such as inaccurate poll prediction, reduced poll credibility, and spreading of misinformation.

In this guide, we will explore what strategic voting is, its importance, and how to spot it.

Understanding Strategic Voting

While online polls are a powerful tool for gauging public sentiment on a wide range of issues, they are also susceptible to the manipulation of strategic voters. 

Strategic voting in online polls is when people vote for a candidate or option that they don’t support, but they think will win. They do this because they want their vote to count, and they don’t want to waste it on a losing candidate

Let’s say you are to pick and vote for your favorite candidate on a reality show. But instead of choosing your favorite, you pick one that helps you win. It means you are voting to win, not to support your ideal candidate or share your opinion.

Why Do People Vote Strategically?

People use strategic voting for different reasons. Some do it because of the bandwagon effect– everyone is doing it, might as well join them.

Voters may also vote strategically if they believe that their preferred candidate has no chance of winning. For example, a voter in a swing state might vote for a major party candidate even though they are not their top choice, to avoid wasting their vote on a third-party candidate.

Real Voting vs. Strategic Voting

Real voting is when a voter casts their ballot for the candidate or party that they truly believe is the best choice. Strategic voting, on the other hand, is when a voter casts their ballot for a candidate or party that they do not necessarily believe is the best choice, but that they believe has a better chance of winning or producing the desired outcome.

Here is an example to illustrate the difference between real voting and strategic voting:

  • Real voting: A voter who is a passionate supporter of the Yellow Party will vote for the Yellow Party candidate in an election, even if they know that the Yellow Party candidate has little chance of winning.
  • Strategic voting: A voter who supports the Yellow Party may vote for the Green Party candidate in an election if they believe that the Green Party candidate is more likely to defeat the Yellow Party candidate.

The Impact of Strategic Voting

Strategic voting can have several negative impacts on elections. It can:

  • Elect candidates who are not the most popular choice: This happens when people vote strategically to prevent a less preferred candidate from winning.
  • Discourage people from voting for third-party candidates: Voters may feel like their vote is wasted if they vote for a third-party candidate who is unlikely to win.
  • Foster cynicism and distrust in the electoral process: Voters may feel like their votes don’t matter if they feel like they are forced to vote strategically.
  • Changing people’s opinions: Sometimes, the results of a strategic poll can make people think a candidate is more popular than they are. This could create a scenario where a candidate gets the support of the majority, even if people don’t necessarily support the candidate’s ideologies.

Here is a simple analogy to help understand the impact of strategic voting:

Picture this: you’re on the pitch with 11 players. You’re trying to decide who should be the team captain. You have two options: A or B. You want A to be chosen, but you think B is a better bet. 

Voting for A means you’re wasting your vote because A probably won’t be chosen. Voting for B means you’re more likely to get what you want, even if B isn’t your favorite option.

If everyone on the pitch votes strategically, it is more likely that B will be chosen as team captain, even if A is the preferred choice. This is how strategic voting affects election results- everyone is voting for the candidate who they think is more likely to win, even if that candidate is not their preferred choice.

Identifying Strategic Voting Patterns

There are several ways to identify strategic voting patterns. Here are some of the most popular ways to detect strategic voting in polls:

  • Review Exit Poll Consistency: If a voter votes for a third-party candidate in one election and then votes for a candidate with a better media perception in the next election, this could be a sign of strategic voting.
  • Check Voting Patterns: Look at the voting patterns of specific groups of voters. For example, if a particular group of voters consistently votes for the same candidate, even though that candidate is not the most popular candidate among the general population, this could be a sign of strategic voting.
  • Analyze the voting data: Voting data can be analyzed to identify patterns that suggest strategic voting. For example, analysts can look at the voting patterns of voters who live in swing states or the voting patterns of voters who are members of minority groups.
  • Look at the results of elections. You can also use election results to identify strategic voting patterns. For example, if a third-party candidate unexpectedly wins a large number of votes, this could be a sign of strategic voting.

Keep in mind that it’s not always easy to figure out if someone is voting strategically or being honest in a poll. Sometimes, people change their opinions because they have seen new information that changed their misconceptions about candidates.

Reasons Behind Strategic Voting

People vote strategically for various reasons, including:

  • Preventing a less preferred outcome: This is the most common reason for strategic voting. For example, a voter might vote for a third-party candidate who has no chance of winning to prevent a more disliked candidate from winning.
  • Increasing the chances of their preferred candidate winning: This often happens when there are many candidates with similar views such as party primaries. For example, a voter might vote for someone more likely to win, even if they’re not their top pick, after all, they have similar ideologies.
  • Indirect Protest: Sometimes people may vote strategically to send a message to politicians or other voters. For example, a voter might vote for a third-party candidate to protest the two main parties.
  • Peer and Community Pressure– If all your friends, family, or even leaders are voting for a candidate, you might do the same to fit in with them. A good way to do this is to create anonymous polls, so people’s opinion doesn’t get clouded by other people’s opinion.
  • Polls That Make It Easy – Sometimes, the way the poll is set up can make people play games. If a poll says, “Pick the candidate that will most likely win,” you might not pick your true favorite. You’ll choose the one think would win.

Strategies to Mitigate Strategic Voting

The first thing you need to do to prevent strategic voting in your polls is to select a good online poll maker. A great option is the formplus poll maker.

The Formplus poll maker offers all the features you need to protect the accuracy of your poll data. Let’s see how you can use Formplus poll maker to make your online polls more accurate:

How Formplus Helps Migitate Strategic Voting

  • Anonymous Responses: Formplus allows you to collect anonymous responses. When respondents know their identities are not linked to their answers, they are less likely to vote strategically to influence the outcome.
  • Randomized Answer Order: You can also randomize questions and options on formplus polls. This prevents respondents from predicting the “correct” strategic vote based on the order of options.
  • Limit Response Options: Formplus enables you to limit the number of responses a person can submit. This prevents a single individual from disproportionately influencing the results.
  • Monitor Results in Real-Time: You can also track poll responses in real time with the Formplus responses dashboard. If you notice unusual patterns or spikes, you can take action to investigate or even close the poll if necessary.
  • Use Skip Logic: Implement skip logic to customize the questions respondents see based on their previous responses. This ensures that they only answer questions relevant to them, reducing the potential for strategic voting.
  • Time Limits: You can set time limits for completing the poll. This discourages participants from taking too much time to strategize their responses.

Additional Tips to Migitate Strategic Voting

  • Creating Secure and Accurate Polls – You can ensure your results are accurate by using better tools and technology like the Formplus poll maker. With the poll maker, you can create anonymous polls, and monitor and discontinue biased polls if necessary.
  • Transparency and Clear Guidelines – Include a disclaimer at the beginning of the poll about the importance of honest responses and discourage strategic voting. Remind participants that the poll’s purpose is to gather accurate data about their opinions, there’s no pressure to choose any candidate.

Case Studies In Strategic Voting

Here are some popular cases of strategic voting that made news in the last 10 years:

  • 2016 US Elections

In this election, some voters who had originally supported third-party candidates such as Bernie Sanders or Gary Johnson decided to vote for Hillary Clinton in the general election to prevent Donald Trump from winning. This strategic voting is thought to have played a role in Clinton’s narrow victory in some key swing states

  • 2016 Brexit Referendum in the United Kingdom

Some voters who had planned to vote “remain” opted to vote “leave”  to avoid a second referendum. This strategic vote is believed to have contributed to the ‘leave’ campaign’s narrow victory in the referendum.

Lessons learned from these cases:

  • Strategic voting can have a significant impact on the outcome of elections: In both the 2016 US presidential election and the 2016 Brexit referendum, strategic voting is thought to have played a role in the narrow victory of the winning side.
  • Strategic voting can be difficult to predict:  In both the 2016 US presidential election and the 2016 Brexit referendum, there was a great deal of uncertainty about how widespread strategic voting would be and what its impact would be. This uncertainty made it difficult for pollsters to accurately predict the outcome of the elections.

The Ethical Dilemma

Some argue that strategic voting negatively impacts polls, while others argue that strategic voting can be beneficial. Here are some of the most common arguments for and against strategic voting:

  • Freedom of Expression vs. Fairness

Freedom of Expression: The principle of free speech protects a person’s right to say what he or she wants to say. In voting, this principle implies that a person should have the freedom to vote for whatever candidate or option he or she pleases, even if he or she chooses because of strategic reasons. 

Some people argue that restricting strategic voting is a violation of this basic democratic right.

Fairness: However, when it comes to fairness in an election or poll, it’s really important to make sure that the results reflect the true will of the people. When people use strategic voting, they’re not only manipulating the results, but they’re also distorting the truth about what people really want. 

This can lead to inaccurate results. This raises ethical objections because strategic voting distorts the results and distorts the integrity of the process.

  • Expert Different Opinions on Strategic Voting:

Proponents of Preventing Strategic Voting: Some experts argue that measures to prevent strategic voting ensure that the results reflect genuine opinions, which is essential for making informed decisions based on accurate data.

Opponents of Preventing Strategic Voting: Others believe that people should have the freedom to vote strategically if they want to. They argue that strategic voting can be a legitimate expression of people’s preferences and can reflect their desire to influence the outcome in a way that aligns with their interests. 

Restricting such behavior may infringe upon personal autonomy and freedom of expression.

Balance Between Different Views

Eliminating strategic voting should be done carefully, taking into account the context and intent of the poll. However, in most cases, especially policy changes and general elections, preserving the integrity of the process may override ethical objections to restricting strategic voting.


Strategic voting can make a huge difference in the outcome of elections. You must design and analyze your polls with the possibility of meeting strategic voters to maintain the credibility of your polls.

Also, using a user-friendly polling builder like Formplus poll maker enables you to eliminate strategic voting by providing you with features to prevent and detect strategic voting.

Ready to create more accurate polls? Get started with the Formplus poll maker!

  • Moradeke Owa
  • on 10 min read


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