Reasons for voting

A vote is fundamentally a blunt instrument. Each voter has exactly one vote, and this one vote needs to express the voter’s opinion on a large range of issues.

Since you are extremely unlikely to have a unique candidate for every combination of issues, a voter can’t have it all. He must be prepared to compromise on certain issues, in order to get his way on certain other issues.

This is where the voter’s preferences and objectives matter. In the longlist of issues, certain issues matter more to certain people than certain other issues. And voters usually put a “don’t care condition” on their less important issues, so that they can get their way on the more important ones.

So some voters might be okay voting in a racist if he promises to bring them jobs. Other voters might be okay to “sacrifice” cow protection because they believe the reduction in corruption is more important. Some others might be willing to throw minority citizens under the bus if that implies stronger labour protection. And so forth.

If a racist has won the election, it doesn’t mean that all those who voted for him are racist – there are surely racists among his supporter base, but many others voted for him simply because racism is not something they care that deeply about. Similarly, if a religious bigot has won, it doesn’t mean everyone who voted for him was a bigot – all it means is that bigotry was a less important issue for many of these voters.

The problem with a lot of the mainstream media and “commentariat” (in different countries) is that they somehow assume that all voters need to have the same set of preferences and priorities as them. And when that doesn’t happen, and results go against them, they start questioning the morals of their voters. An appreciation of diversity (that different people have different priorities) can help in this matter – assuming that everyone ought to have the same priorities is illiberal.

In this regard, an understanding of what voters’ priorities are is an important tool to frame campaign strategy, which can help politicians determine what areas of their manifestoes to lay more focus on. I had done this kind of an analysis prior to the Maharashtra elections two years ago, for example (based on a painstakingly elaborate survey by Daksh and the Association for Democratic Reforms).

I had taken pairs of communities, and compared them in terms of the order in which they ranked different key issues. The survey I based this on hadn’t asked for the respondents’ views on who they were voting for (that wasn’t the purpose of the survey), if we were to do this kind of preference ranking of voters of different parties, it will soon become evident why the election turned in a certain way.

Finally, the result of an election is usually a result of the issues that were on top of most voters’ priorities. The same parties with the same manifestoes across elections can lead to widely different results, only because the voters’ preferences have changed! It’s time for politicians and the media to chew on that.