LIKE MANY OF US, I have been tempted in this election season to cast my vote for a third-party candidate, and I have given a great deal of thought as to the wisdom of doing so. Those of you who have befriended me perhaps know that I was a supporter of Bernie Sanders early on. I’d like to lay out my thinking on the matter as clearly and simply as I can, because this time around, the stakes are extremely high, and I have at least one or two irrepressible acquaintances who seem not to have thought the matter through. It may be that all of you intelligent folk have long since worked this out, but it seems I needed a bit more time. Anyway, here we go.
Like it or not, we live in a two-party democracy, by which I mean that no third party has a realistic chance of winning the presidency. There are occasionally down-ballot independents, of course (Sanders is a good example) and Ross Perot garnered nineteen percent of the national vote in 1992—but zero electoral votes. As things stand, however, a third party vote in the presidential race is by definition a vote for a losing candidate. Sad, perhaps, but true, at least for the current election—as well as for all those that have preceded it.
Let’s further stipulate that our democracy is highly polarized. Party identity is extremely strong, there is virtually no overlap in party platforms, and there is no cooperation or compromise in Congress of any kind. It’s strictly the GOOD GUYs versus the BAD GUYs. Under these conditions, it is not the case that the average voter has a first choice and a second choice; rather, most voters recognize a single choice only—the GOOD GUY—and they would rather stay home and pound salt than vote for the BAD GUY. For the record, the word GUY as used here, is intended as a generic, gender-neutral reference (for obvious reasons).
Enter a third party candidate—the SPOILER GUY. By definition, SPOILER GUY siphons a vote that would otherwise go to GOOD GUY or BAD GUY. But we have already concluded that the vast majority of voters would never vote for BAD GUY under any circumstances, because he’s a thoroughly deplorable person, and not merely a second choice. Therefore, all votes for SPOILER GUY would otherwise go to GOOD GUY.
Now, it’s true that some votes for SPOILER GUY are votes that would otherwise never be cast at all, but by definition these votes have little or no bearing on the other two candidates, so we’ll set them aside for now. The inescapable conclusion, then, is that voting for SPOILER GUY materially helps BAD GUY, whose vote total is not diminished, and hurts GOOD GUY, whose vote total is. You read it right: a third party vote, under these electoral conditions, indirectly helps the worst candidate on offer.
The next question—the more serious question—is, does it really matter? The answer to this question is a little less straightforward, but far more important, so bear with me.
We know that SPOILER GUY cannot win the election, but winning is not the only reason to vote for SPOILER GUY. Perhaps you regard it as a vote of conscience. Perhaps you want to legitimize a third party, and help them to garner enough votes to pass the percentage threshold for fuller participation next time around. Perhaps you believe there is no GOOD GUY; there is only BAD GUY and WORSE GUY, and you want to register a protest vote. These are all perfectly legitimate reasons to vote for SPOILER guy.
Now we come to the central point: a good reason for your vote is necessary, but insufficient. You must also be willing to accept, and to bear responsibility for, the CONSEQUENCES of your vote.
Let’s explore this idea. Voting is not, or rather should not be, a matter of identity. Voting is a matter of consequence (pun intended). The biggest mistake that voters make is to identify with one candidate or another; one party or another; one issue or another. This is wrong-headed and ridiculous; our candidates are not us, and our party affiliations are not us; at best they represent us to some highly imperfect degree. Surely this is obvious.
The central problem is that the act of identification transports the vote from the domain of reason into the domain of emotion. In the political realm, emotional choices tend to be bad choices, and if anybody needs convincing on that one, I’d offer that you’ve been asleep somewhere in Scandinavia or Mars for, like, ever. In this country, entire media industries have arisen that specialize in fact-challenged emotional propaganda, and they enthrall the electorate with poorly-sourced, half-baked, content-free mendacity that is designed to inflame, rather than enlighten. Thus we observe (and must endure) the highly-energized, emotionally-charged, I’m-mad-as-hell-and-I’m-not-going-to-take-it-anymore LOW INFORMATION GUY. This is the stock-in-trade of American democracy, but the bane of a healthy democracy. It follows that American democracy is not healthy at all. I should think that no one needs convincing on that point.
By contrast, knowledge of the likely consequences, acknowledgement of them, and the conscious acceptance of them invite the opposite of identification. It tends to lift the choice up out of thorax, and return it to the cerebral cortex where it belongs. This is good.
What, then, are the likely consequences of voting for SPOILER GUY? The answer to that depends upon where you live. If you live in a conspicuously red or blue state, the practical consequences are nil; your vote will have no measurable impact on the outcome of the election. In this case, by all means vote for whomever you like, and hope that the consequences of your vote, whatever they may be, will be positive for society.
If you live in a swing state, however, the answer is entirely different. I define a swing state as one in which the majority of reliable scientific polls place the difference between GOOD GUY and BAD GUY (plus the margin of error) as equal to or less than the poll projections for SPOILER GUY. (I’m sure there are some statistical complexities here, but work with me on this.) In this case, the practical consequences of voting for SPOILER GUY is to help elect BAD GUY.
Under these circumstances, then, a vote for SPOILER GUY cannot effectively serve as a vote of conscience, because the practical consequences run directly counter to the intent of the vote. Sure, maybe you’ll get lucky, but luck has nothing to do with conscience, and it would be better for everyone if you stopped kidding yourself.
Other reasons for third-party votes equally bear responsibility for the consequences that ensue. Unfortunately, most third-party voters are unwilling to acknowledge or accept those consequences; they care only about the vote itself. It’s the statement that’s important—throw the bums out; screw the establishment; no more do what the man say; the rent is too damn high; make America grate again; whatever—regardless of the consequences. This is naive and unhelpful, and that’s putting it as mildly as I possibly can.
So. To state this as plainly as possible. If you live in, say, Florida (a swing state) AND you vote for Jill Stein AND Donald Trump wins the state by a narrow margin, it’s your fault. Period. Deal with it. You can’t claim innocence because hey you voted for Stein and you would never ever vote for Trump no way no how plus how could you even say that about me I thought we were friends but I want the truth you can’t handle the truth plus these aren’t the droids your looking for. If, on the other hand, Trump wins by a large margin, then the polls were wrong, Florida wasn’t a swing state after all, and you got lucky. Good for you.
So here are a few simple (if challenging) rules to help us all navigate these treacherous waters:
Don’t believe anything—ever. Consult the evidence.
To the extent that you are capable, don’t identify with anybody or anything. Vote with your head, not your heart.
Don’t patronize any media outlet that caters to a specific voting bloc. Stick to reliable news sources.
Know, accept, the take responsibility for the likely consequences of your vote. Luck doesn’t count.
Don’t vote for a third party if you live in a swing state. It’s counterproductive.
Do vote for a third party if you’re a Trump supporter. It's important.
That is all.