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Civics 101: Single-shot or bullet voting

J. H. Osborne • Apr 15, 2019 at 5:30 PM

With municipal elections coming up in Kingsport, Bristol, and Bluff City, this week's Civics 101 takes a look at a strategy used by some voters which some might initially think sounds counterproductive.

It’s called “single-shot” or “bullet” voting, and in essence it means a voter opts to forego his or her right to vote for multiple candidates in a single race and instead cast only one vote. Doing so would seem like throwing your full rights away to some. But to others, it is seen as adding strength to the single vote they do cast.

The theory is this: If you have a particular candidate you want to win more than any others, by voting only for that candidate you lessen the likelihood other candidates in the same race will equal or exceed the votes received by your candidate. The strategy often is used if a voter thinks a race could be close.

Let’s say there are five candidates for three seats on a local elected board and all are “at-large” representatives. That means each eligible registered voter in that locale has the right to vote for three candidates total. The top three vote-getters will win. If a voter has one particular candidate they want to make sure wins in case of a tight finish, they might choose to vote only for that one candidate.

On election results, this will cause an “undervote” in the final tally: If 1,000 voters cast ballots, there would be the potential for 3,000 votes in the example above (if each voted for three candidates); but if some voters don’t vote for three — choosing only one or two instead — the total votes cast won’t reach that 3,000 mark. The difference is the undervote.

“Single-shot or bullet voting applies to races in which voters have the opportunity to cast a vote for more than one candidate in a single race,” Sullivan County Administrator of Elections Jason Booher said. “Examples of more than one winner races in Sullivan County include county commission, constable, and municipal offices. In some instances, a voter may vote for two, and in others up to three candidates. In my experience, many voters mistakenly believe they must cast the maximum number of votes permitted in each race. Each voter has the option to choose not only who to vote for, but how many candidates they wish to vote for in a multi-vote race. In theory, a voter who chooses to vote for a single candidate in a multi-vote race has improved the chances that the candidate they voted for will win. For example, if a voter casts a single vote in a race that permits up to three votes for three separate candidates, that voter has in theory provided that single candidate with three votes by not diluting their vote to three different candidates.”

Because all voter selections are anonymous, there is no way to determine the true effect of single-shot voting, Booher noted. It isn’t a simple as trying to estimate the effect of single-shot voting by looking at the number of undervotes.

“All voters need to know that their vote is anonymous,” Booher said. “That they have the freedom to choose not only which candidates to vote for across all races, but that they do not have to cast a ballot for all races on the ballot. That in multi-vote races they may vote less than the maximum number of votes permitted. And that it is not possible for any candidate to receive more than one vote from each voter.”

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