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Spoiling the vote as an electoral strategy?

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I was quite surprised when I saw Alex Tan Zhixiang‘s post on his Facebook group VOTE THE PAP OUT.  In the post, Alex Tan says that he does not endorse any opposition party or candidate and his group is solely dedicated to pushing the dominant People’s Action Party out of power rather than voting in the opposition.  To achieve this end, he claims that one need not vote for the opposition, but may also opt to spoil his/her ballot so long as the vote is not cast for the PAP:

At first I wondered if such a strategy would work, given that spoilt ballots do not count as “ballots cast”.  As an example, let’s examine Aljunied GRC’s 2006 election results here:

From the above it is evident that both spoilt and rejected paper ballots are not counted.  The final tally for both parties contesting in the Aljunied GRC is 133,436, a number which excludes both spoilt and rejected ballots. Hence spoiling the vote does absolutely nothing to keep any targeted party from winning at all, unless it were specifically targeted at that party’s supporters to keep their share of valid cast ballots low.  Even so a better strategy to keep a party out would be to vote for the opposing party.  Here’s why:


Consider a hypothetical scenario where a hundred eligible voters cast ballots for parties A and B contesting a district. Party A gets 40 votes. Party B gets 35 votes. The remaining number of votes, 25, are deemed to be spoilt, either accidentally or intentionally by disgruntled voters intending to vote against party A but whom could not bring themselves to vote for alternative party B.  Who wins the election?  Unsurprisingly, party A, even though 60 voters (a clear majority) did not vote for them.  The reason being that elections in Singapore follow what is known as the first-past-the-post (similar to plurality voting where a simply plurality, as opposed to a majority of votes, is sufficient to determine the winner) election system.  On the other hand, if a mere 1/5th (5 voters) + 1 of those who spoilt their ballots voted for part B instead, party B would win 41 votes to party A’s 40 votes.  In short, for Alex Tan’s “disillusioned voter” strategy to work, one must ensure that party A does not get more votes than the party B, it’s closest competitor, a task which is more easily accomplished if voters choose B over A instead of deliberately spoiling their votes.

The benefits of a FPTP system are obvious to major parties.  Firstly major parties tend to have greater name recognition and larger dedicated voter bases.  This ensures that even if the party is unable to garner a majority of votes (ie. >50%) it would still have a significant minority of voters backing it in the election.  Secondly a FPTP system disfavours smaller and disunited parties.  How so?  Now imagine instead of there being a single large alternative party in the district (party B), we have parties C,D,E,F as well.  Now imagine the votes for each party break down as follows:


Votes (100 in total)
A 40
B 20
C 10
D 10
E 9
F 1

Spoilt/rejected ballot


Compared to the previous case, where party B won 35 votes and needed only 6 votes to win the election, we now see that it needs 26 votes or more, 4 times the previous requirement instead.  Indeed this is a good reason why opposition parties in Singapore always have to coordinate to ensure that not more than one opposing party runs against the PAP in a given district.

Elsewhere on the Web, various others have written about the inherent undemocratic disadvantages of a FPTP voting system.  See here and here for example.

One last word on this before I finish this post.  In the 2006 general elections, a total of 26,730 of ballots cast were marked as spoilt.  That’s no small number although the spoilt votes were distributed all over the various districts instead of being concentrated in a few.  Although the election outcome would not have changed if all the rejected ballots were somehow cast for the opposition parties, one can’t help wonder how many out of these 26,730 ballots were deliberately spoilt votes?  That’s something we will never know.


Written by defennder

January 5, 2010 at 5:55 PM

Posted in Singapore affairs

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2 Responses

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  1. SPOT ON. I was ‘encouraged to join the FB group’, but before doing that, I went through the various posts and the discussion wall and found out that there are in fact people who already realized this. However, I’m glad you had a more “elaborate” and statistically proven discussion here, which I think would be great if you can post it up on their “wall”, cause I think that group’s not achieving anything at all.


    February 24, 2010 at 7:17 PM

  2. One thing not to forget: voting is mandatory in Singapore.

    So Alex is kind of right: the 25 voters who cannot bring themselves to vote for the opposition have two choices: either “PAP” or “VOID” (“OPPOSITION” is not a possible choice in their heads)

    Between these two “VOID” is better than “PAP”.


    July 15, 2010 at 2:48 PM

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