It’s election season again, and once more the American people find themselves facing what feels like a choice between the lesser of two evils – perhaps more so than ever before, as the candidates on “both sides of the aisle” are each remarkable in their own sad ways.
As in previous elections, there are two major third party options available to voters, the Libertarian Party and the Green Party, and as in previous elections, there is a hue and cry among the devout Republicans and Democrats that to vote outside the traditional major parties is a vote for the other guy, a “wasted vote.”
I am a staunch third party supporter, and of all the things about election season that leave a bad taste in my mouth, this tastes the worst. I hate this faulty logic, and want to address it in a blog post, just to satisfy myself.
Firstly, the whole idea that someone would cast a vote for a candidate of their choice and that that vote is “wasted” is nonsense of the highest order. If a candidate is on the ballot, then they are a valid candidate, and to suggest that some candidates are more valid than others undermines the entire idea and purpose of the process. The purpose of voting is to determine the will of the people, and if X% of the people want Candidate C, then so be it, regardless of whether or not that percentage is sufficient to win. There are “swing voters” in every election, but you never hear that Bush “stole” votes from Gore - well, there was that whole ‘hanging chad’ thing, but you get my meaning. Only one can win, and anyone who managed to get their name on your ballot deserves your full consideration.
Speaking of “the win” reminds of another element to this wasted vote narrative; that being the received wisdom that no third party can win. This idea, of course, is why that vote is considered wasted, but I fear it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that third parties must overcome. What I see happen in virtually every election cycle is that third parties receive relatively little attention in the media, and when they are featured it is in novelty or “human interest” stories that are often tinged with a hint of patronage, a heartwarming story about the underdog candidate who thinks they can compete with the Big Boys. Then the polls begin, and whether implicitly or explicitly, the major polls do not mention third parties, even when they are on the ballot in a majority of states*. Voters who might choose a third party option are asked to answer a poll with only a binary answer; this both skews the polls, and in my opinion, also skews public opinion about the viability of other parties and other candidates. So the third party candidates poll low, and don’t make the required 15% of the population (though perhaps they might if the major polls actually included their names?) benchmark, and so they are not allowed in the major debates of the election season. Because of this, the voting public only sees two candidates, only hears and reads about two candidates, and quite naturally must be surprised to see three or more on their ballot come election day. No wonder they “can’t win.” For third party candidates, there is a Presidential Ceiling, and in my opinion, this ceiling is enforced by an institutional bias created through a combination of public attitude, media coverage, and election regulations.
This brings me to another effrontery surrounding third party votes, the idea that a vote for Candidate C is really a vote for Candidate A (or B, depending on which camp you’re in), because it will “steal” votes from Candidate A that s/he would have otherwise received. Although it’s true that third party candidates do divide the numbers, to suggest that doing so is somehow “stealing” votes away from the other (implicitly more valid) candidates is foolishness, as is the idea that voting for one candidate is a de facto vote for someone completely different. This is a logical fallacy created by asserting an “either/or” choice that simply doesn’t exist on the actual ballot. But as the election cycle heats up, this fallacy runs rampant, and combines forces with a party-line guilt trip: 3rd party supporters are told that this election is different, the other guy is too conservative/liberal, represents too much of a threat and must be stopped at all costs … your little political revolution needs to wait; this is a time to close ranks and present a unified front. Uh-huh. Every damned time. H. L. Mencken remarked that “the whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it was an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.” Every election of recent memory has been deemed “too important” to vote for anyone but the lesser of two evils, as the saying goes.
The debates surrounding the legitimacy of third party candidates reminds me, oddly enough, of the two prominent camps of the civil rights campaigns of the early 20th century. In one camp, there was Booker T. Washington, who stressed education and the betterment of the black community. At some risk of over-simplifying his position, he felt that if the black community acted the part, they would eventually receive the same treatment as whites. Taking a polar opposite opinion was W.E.B. duBois, who felt that achieving civil rights was Job One, and that the white power structure would never surrender rights unless those rights were demanded. While the analogy is nowhere near exact, and the stakes are nowhere near as high, even for this election, the dynamic seems remarkably similar to me. In the Washingtonian camp are those Bernie supporters who, although the whiff of possible voter fraud in the Democratic party has left a bad taste in their mouths, will stay the course and work to effect change within a deeply flawed institution. In the duBoisian camp are those voters who have abandoned all hope of being heeded by the major parties and are taking their votes elsewhere. If this analogy has something to teach us, it is that both camps were working toward the same end; neither approach was wrong or invalid, and achieving the end results probably took the combined effort of both. I have friends who were Bernie supporters, and have thrown their lot in with Hillary rather than going 3rd party, because they believe in working for change from the inside. They’re right to do so. My other friends, who are 3rd party voters and refuse to throw their lot in with the major parties that they feel no longer represent them? They’re right too. If there is to be any kind of political revolution, it must come from all sides.
So my point here is not to stump for Gary Johnson, or Jill Stein, or Darren Castle (who?!), or to convince you to not vote for either Trump or Clinton, if that’s where you heart leads you. My point is to argue that our democracy works best when all voices are valued. As our Commander in Chief said just this week, “don’t boo – vote.” Vote your conscience, and don’t listen to the hobgoblins, because all votes matter.
*FYI, Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party is on the ballot in all 50 states, and Jill Stein of the Green Party is on the ballot in 23 states (and DC), reaching 60% of the voting public. Darren Castle of the Constitution Party is on the ballot in over 20 states.