Strategic voting: A guide to single-shotting

Mayor Nikuyah Walker likely benefited from her supporters’ embrace of single-shot voting in 2017, finishing first at the end of an independent run for council. Photo by Eze Amos Mayor Nikuyah Walker likely benefited from her supporters’ embrace of single-shot voting in 2017, finishing first at the end of an independent run for council. Photo by Eze Amos

By Jake Mooney

Seventeen years ago, when I was a reporter for The Daily Progress and Lloyd Snook was the chairman of Charlottesville’s Democratic Party, he accused me of writing an instruction manual for voters to elect Republican Rob Schilling.

I was not perfect as a reporter, but I thought this was unfair because I never would have tried to get any particular candidate elected, certainly not Rob Schilling. But what also rankled, then and now, was the underlying idea that there was something wrong with voters casting informed and intentional votes for the candidates they want to win, whoever those candidates may be.

Snook was angry, specifically, that I wrote about a strategy called “single-shotting,” which Schilling’s supporters were planning to use and eventually did use successfully. This approach likely also helped Mayor Nikuyah Walker win her council seat as an independent in 2017, and it’s one that some politically minded people are starting to talk about again as the Democratic primary approaches.

In short, single-shotting is when you vote for just one candidate, even when you’re allowed to vote for more because there are multiple open seats. If you think that sounds incredibly simple, or like something that barely deserves a proper name, then I agree with you. But I’d like to spend a few more words here on the general idea: An instruction manual, if you will, for casting your smartest possible vote(s).

The first thing to remember is that, even if there are multiple seats open, you don’t have to cast all of the votes you’re entitled to. You may be allowed to vote for three candidates, but you can choose to only vote for two, or one. For some reason, people have a hard time with this: They think you’re wasting one of your votes if you decide not to cast it. I would frame it differently, and say that by voting for candidates you aren’t really excited about along with your favorites, you’re actually diluting the power of each of your votes.

The guiding principle, basically, is to vote for the person or people you most want to see win. Unsure about whether a candidate is worth one of your votes? Just close your eyes and picture that person beating your top choice, and decide if you like the way that feels. The point here is not just to vote for the people you like, but to avoid voting for people who might beat them.

Here’s how it worked for Walker in the last election: She knew a lot of people would be voting for the two Democratic nominees, Heather Hill and Amy Laufer. If some of her supporters had voted for Walker and Hill, and some for Walker and Laufer, then those votes, combined with votes for a Hill-Laufer ticket, would have buried Walker in third. In order to beat at least one of them, Walker needed to get a lot of votes, but also to minimize the number of votes Hill and Laufer each got.

In short, Walker needed her supporters to vote just for her, and not for either of the others. Just like Schilling needed his supporters to vote just for him, and not for either of the Democrats. In both of their cases, thinking about the race this way seemed to work. (It’s hard to know because the city doesn’t track single-shotting, but records show there were 5,877 votes that could have been cast and weren’t.)

This election—which is actually the Democratic primary, but will go a very long way towards deciding who gets elected in November in this heavily Democratic city—is even more complicated because it’s got three open seats, not two. In practice, I think that means it will be hard for supporters of any one candidate to shut out any one other candidate altogether; there are just too many open spots. But you can still try to make sure your top choice or choices get elected while giving the candidates you don’t like as few allies as possible.

So: Do you really like candidate A, and think your top priority is to make sure that person gets on the council? Then just vote for candidate A and leave the other spots blank. Are you really sold on candidates A and B, but not so sure about candidate C, even though C seems like a nice enough person? Well, how will you feel if C gets enough votes to finish ahead of A or B?  Personally, I’d skip the vote for C—unless, of course, I was positive C wasn’t going to get that many votes, and I wanted to support that person as a symbolic gesture.

True, by casting fewer than three votes, you’re giving up your theoretical right to choose all three winners. But in practice, your top three choices likely won’t all get elected, and you want to avoid helping your third choice beat your first choice.

Back in the real, non-hypothetical world, I don’t know exactly who I’m going to vote for in the upcoming City Council primary, although I confess I have a decent idea of who I’m not voting for. (I’m part Sicilian, and don’t let go of grievances very easily.)

What I am sure about is that people deserve to elect the candidates they want, and no one else. If they need instructions to make that happen, then so be it.

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