Three people are running for election in Germany: Hitler, Schmitler and Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer promises just policies but has no chance of being elected. Hitler promises to kill 50% of minorities. Schmitler promises to kill 80% of minorities. You might think that at this point I will raise the difficult question whether it is permissible, all other things being equal, to vote for Hitler. But I won’t raise exactly that question.
Instead, I want to expand on the above scenario in a different way. Schmitler is incompetent and won’t manage to do more than a quarter of the evils he promises, unlike Hitler who is going to exactly what he promises. So, whom should you vote for? Bonhoeffer who has just policies but won’t be elected? Hitler whose policies are less bad than Schmitler’s, but who will do exactly what he promises? Or Schmitler whose policies are much worse than Hitler’s, but who will do much less bad than Hitler?
There is a good utilitarian case for voting for Schmitler. Here’s an argument for this case. Suppose the elections are occurring in the middle of World War II. It seems that a very reasonable thing for Allied spies to do is to ensure that incompetent people run Nazi Germany. One means to that goal is stuffing ballot boxes with votes for Schmitler. And while typically one shouldn’t stuff ballot boxes, this seems to be a case where the stuffing of ballot boxes would be permissible. So, Allied spies, we suppose, are stuffing ballot boxes in favor of Schmitler. Helga is a German resister to Nazism, working for the Allies. She is an excellent prestidigitator and is going to the voting booth with a sleeve full of Schmitler ballots, in order to stuff the box surreptitiously. If the Allied spies are doing the right thing, Helga is doing the right thing.
Now, if Helga can permissibly stuff the ballot box in favor of Schmitler, then she could permissibly do this: put in a vote for Bonhoeffer (or Hitler), then surreptitiously remove that ballot and replace it with a fake ballot in favor of Schmitler. But if that’s permissible for her, then it would be very strange if she wasn’t permitted simply to vote for Schmitler.
So, it seems, it is permissible to vote for Schmitler on the grounds that he is incompetent, despite the fact that his policies are significantly worse than Hitler’s. But if this is permissible, then it would be a fortiori permissible to vote for Schmitler if he promised to kill 5% of minorities, and this would seem to be permissible even if Schmitler were as competent as Hitler. So, we have an argument that it is permissible to vote for a candidate whose policies represent a lesser evil. Of course, one should never endorse an evil, even a lesser one. So, it follows that voting for a candidate is not endorsement of the candidate’s policies.
I am not wholly convinced by the above argument. I feel a certain pull to the strange view that while it would be permissible for Helga to replace her real Bonhoeffer vote with a Schmitler fake ballot, it would not be permissible for her to vote for Schmitler. After all, strange circumstances make for strange conclusions.