How Should I Decide How to Vote?

In one month Americans will vote for a new president. Some people have known who will get their vote for months. Others are still on the fence. Some are on a different kind of fence, waiting to see if they need to move to Canada or not.

Elections the primary proof humanity has that playing hard to get is the quickest path to power. It’s the undecided, Ambivalents, and independents who the candidates must sway to win. The most indecisive politically are those who carry the heaviest weight of this decision.

People on all sides of the political spectrum are casting this election as do or die. They are essentially making the same argument: if you do not vote for who I tell you to, America will cease to exist. Since all sides are saying it, clearly how people define the end of America is up for interpretation.

I’ve been nerding out about politics for months, but as someone who struggles to form strong opinions about most things that aren’t Taco Bell, I haven’t thought much about who I will vote for. Probably because I’m less concerned with the who then the why. What are the factors people weigh when they are choosing between candidates? If they think both are bad, how do they decide?

In 2004, Robert Sylwester, an Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Oregon, asked these questions in a piece for Brain Connection. He makes crucial distinctions between two types of decision making:

  1. Veridical decision – Sylwester defines this as knowing and reporting the correct answer to a factual problem that has a single correct answer
  2. Adaptive decisions – developing and enacting a choice among several legitimate responses to a problem

Clearly, voting is an adaptive decision, but, as Sylwester points out, journalists, writers, entertainers, advertisers, and political parties are all “seek[ing] to convince voters that it’s a veridical decision.” This is the Fire & Brimstone version of voting and ignores the real and rational compromises everyone must make when they vote.

Jon A. Krosnick, a Professor Psychology and Political Science at Ohio State University, argues there are three ways of looking at the question of who to vote for:

“Should you choose someone who shares your preferences, has expertise, or has a small track record of success in the past?”

These are good measuring sticks, but don’t offer a comprehensive look at a candidate (and the political party they represent) as a whole.

The first step in choosing who to vote for if you are Ambivalent is to decide how to decide.

Here are some of the options I’m considering when thinking through what should influence my vote:


This is probably what most of us were taught growing up and how we envisioned democracy working: you vote in accordance with sincerely held beliefs about what’s best for the country.

Pros: voting based on ideas can remove superficial barriers such as appearance or social media prowess from unduly influencing decision making.

Cons: it’s nearly impossible for one person (or one party) to exactly embody your political philosophy so you still have to weigh what ideas are most important to you.

Party Allegiance

A lot of people have strong opinions and longstanding relationships with their political party (pro tip: you can tell someone’s political allegiance by the violence of their shudder when saying either Conservative or Liberal out loud).

Pros: groups people together so you have a better chance of actually winning. Also, (bonus!) there are literal parties to celebrate political parties.

Cons: again, it’s nearly impossible for a party to represent your individual views and parties have to make strategic decisions that may compromise ideology in order to win

Personal Allegiance

Some people love a particular person and would vote for them no matter what.

(Example: if Queen Elizabeth ever ran for anything I would vote for her because she’s undeniably fabulous and also because at this point it seems likely that she will live forever.)

Pros: individuals can be more consistent than parties because they aren’t beholden to so many members. Can also operate more efficiently.

Cons: people are fickle and can change and are often controlled by institutions.


You might choose to vote for someone in order to vote against someone else. This is known to most as “choosing the lesser of two evils.” So maybe you don’t want pantsuits in office, but, more importantly, you really really don’t want spray tans to be legitimized. When you vote, it’s less a vote for pant suits and more of a vote against spray tans.

Pros: its realistic in that you don’t expect more than you should from the candidate you vote for.

Cons: not a comprehensive way to choose a leader and requires less critical assessment of the person you actually vote for.


Maybe you don’t like a candidate’s personality or past decisions, but support the platform they propose during their candidacy.

Pros: based on tangible proposals and takes into account a wide range of issues.

Cons: doesn’t take into account how likely a policy is to be enacted if a candidate is elected.

Now what?

There’s no perfect or unbiased approach to voting, but it’s worth thinking critically about why we vote the way we do, and how our socioeconomic backgrounds, ancestral morals, and personalities influence the way we view the world.

Every motivation is flawed, but the one that appears best to me is to vote based on an outcome.

Let me explain.

Voting for ideas is great, but ideas are just that: ideas. Not reality, not law, not policy. Voting for an outcome takes into account ideas, as well as personality and policy, and considers them from the perspective of action. As in: what will actually happen if this person is elected? What will they do? What will the outcome be?

Sometimes this might be counterintuitive. Say for instance I supported free higher education. This would not be an automatic reason to vote for Bernie Sanders. A better factor to consider than his vocal support of free higher education is the likelihood that his proposals would ever happen.

Or take another example. If you consider yourself “pro-life” (I’ve written before about how fraught the terminology in the abortion debate is) it’s worth considering if voting for a pro-life candidate will actually do anything about abortion. There’s some evidence indicating that abortion rates go down under pro-choice politicians. Even if you disagree with their rhetorical stance, you could support the outcome they will achieve.

I’m going to vote based on outcomes because I think enacted policy is more important than proposed policy and reality is more substantial than ideas. Because idealism is a luxury and it’s comfortable to frame a decision as the lesser of two evils instead of taking responsibility for the political outcomes we promote. Now I just have to figure out what outcomes are worth voting for.

Got ideas about why I’m wrong or a voting motivation I missed? Let me know in the comments!

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