Vote Like a Pro

Insider Matt Ruben on how to (legally) maximize your impact at the polls.

Game theory in the voting booth. |

Game theory in the voting booth. |

(Editor’s note: This is an opinion column from a Citified insider.) 

So you’re a progressive reformer, and you want to see change on City Council. You’re active on social media, and you frequent news and commentary sites like this one. And you’re interested in the citywide Council at-large races, because they’re the real policy seats, the ones that should be filled by folks with big, bold ideas for our city’s future.

Then you look at all the at-large candidates, and you feel overwhelmed. A few names are familiar, but the rest… not so much. So you find out who the progressive groups are endorsing, ask your political-junkie friends, and if you live in a progressive ward, see who the ward endorsed. Eventually you decide on a full slate of five, because five good voices on Council would be better than just one or two. Right?

Wrong. It might seem reasonable and responsible to vote for the five best candidates, but it’s totally misguided. If you want your favorite challengers to stand any real chance of getting into Council, do something simpler:

Don’t vote for an at-large incumbent. Not a single one. No, not even that one you really like.

I take no pleasure in writing this: Some of the incumbents are excellent Council members. And I say this with no small degree of trepidation: I don’t want to piss off a sitting Councilperson whose help or support I might need down the road. While Philadelphia might seem like a rough-and-tumble, “nothing personal” political culture, in reality almost everyone here takes everything personally.

But if we’re going to be serious about this Progressive Change thing everyone’s been talking about since at least 2007, then we have to be honest. This isn’t personal, and it’s not about any incumbent’s qualifications or record. It’s about electoral math.

In the past 15 years, a grand total of two Democratic at-large Council incumbents have failed to win re-election. And the particular circumstances of each, along with the political profiles of those who replaced them, do not bode well for truly independent challengers.

That’s why you shouldn’t vote for an at-large incumbent. No matter how well known you think your favorite challenger is, or how much money they’ve raised, or how well they spoke at that one forum you went to, they started with a 20,000-30,000 vote deficit. Even in the age of social media and an arguably declining party machine, incumbency remains the most powerful asset a candidate can have. High-profile challengers like Helen Gym, Paul Steinke, and Derek Green are pushing one or two sitting Council members off the endorsed lists in some of the more open wards, but an incumbent retains a major support base, and every challenger is playing catch-up.

So it’s not enough simply to cast your vote for your favorite challenger. You have to give them one more vote than the incumbents. Without that differential, all you’re doing is reducing the challenger’s margin of defeat.

You might think this is insane: If everyone voted that way, all the incumbents would get crushed and some inferior challengers would get elected in their stead. That’s true – but we know that everyone is not going to vote that way.

This is game theory: Not what you should do, but what you should do given your best guess about what others will do. And no matter what anyone writes on or Facebook or anywhere else, on May 19 tens of thousands of voters will pull the trigger for the City Committee’s endorsed list, which includes all the incumbents.

Another large group won’t vote for your personal favorite challenger either, because they’ll vote for the first five names on the ballot (or the first five they recognize). And a much larger group won’t vote for your candidate because they won’t vote at all.

These three blocs are forces pushing the election in a direction counter to what you want. They’re like a flood coming at your house from three sides. You don’t try to let the “good” water in while keeping the “bad” water out. You pile up the sandbags, seal the doors and windows, and do everything you can to keep out every single drop.

So if you vote for even one incumbent, you’re sealing the challenger’s fate. And if you vote for a top-of-the-ballot challenger you think is merely so-so, you’re helping them beat the down-ballot candidate you really care about.

The only complication if you’re a Democrat is that challenger Sherrie Cohen has the party endorsement because of the vacancy left when Jim Kenney resigned to run for Mayor. But since the endorsement doesn’t confer all the benefits of incumbency, and since she pulled a poor ballot position, she’s more or less in the same boat with other high-profile challengers.

If you’re a Republican it’s the same. You might like one of the two incumbents and just want to oust the other one in favor of a challenger. But because you can’t control how others will vote, you need to withhold your vote from both incumbents if you want that challenger to have a real chance.

In the final days before the Philadelphia election, you will likely hear contrary advice like:

  • “In the at-large races no one is really running against anyone else, so just vote for five people you like.”
  • “Challenger X’s real competition is Challenger Y, so just don’t vote for them and Challenger X will be fine.”
  • “I know you like Challengers X and Y, but Incumbent Z has been a great friend to Progressive Causes A, B, and C, so you must vote for Incumbent Z too.”
  • “What a**hole told you not to vote for incumbents? That’s just stupid!”

Coming from a friend or trusted political professional, this advice will sound compelling. Take it if you wish. But don’t say you weren’t warned.

Matt Ruben ran unsuccessfully in the Democratic City Council At-large primary in 2007. He really, really hopes no one in Council will hold this against him.