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Starting with a concrete example:

Let's say a question has two answers. Neither of them is very good, and would not otherwise warrant upvote, and neither is wrong or otherwise bad so does not warrant downvote either. Within this grey area of mediocre answers, one is still clearly better than the other, even if the difference may be just formatting or spelling/grammar or having some self-evident links to Wikipedia.

Should the relatively better one be upvoted just because it is better and should be higher under that question?

Should the relatively worse one be downvoted because it is kind of redundant, as the other answer is at least slightly better?

Or should both answers be evaluated on their own, on absolute merits, and in this example left without any votes?


Of course a real situation in a real question is rarely as clear cut as the example above, so the more general question is:

Should answer votes be used in an attempt to sort the answers under the question, or only to estimate the absolute merits of an answer?

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You're free to use your votes however you want. If you want to vote relatively, you can, if you want to vote absolutely, you can. Neither is wrong. Your votes are yours to use.

You should vote based on whether you think an answer is "useful" or "not useful". If you feel that an answer that contains some of the information that is in another answer, but that is missing some information, isn't as clear, or as understandable, then you might feel that the answer isn't useful because of the existence of another answer. However, someone else is entirely within their rights to find the answer useful to them regardless of the content of any other answers.

The definition of "useful" is intentionally left very vague and open to interpretation. Do whatever you think will be most helpful.

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    Well, I think I think that having answers sorted is useful, and also that downvoting should really only be done to encourage editing/deleting of a bad post. So going by this answer, the choice seems clear. – hyde Feb 18 '14 at 21:32

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