The Thinker

The folly of voting third-party for president

It’s post Labor Day and it’s a presidential election year. You know what that means. According to our press, it means people are now starting to seriously pay attention to the upcoming election.

I find this hard to believe. Granted that I am something of a political junkie but it must be a very, very remote corner of Appalachia that hasn’t heard the endless thoughts spewing from the mouth and Twitter feed of Donald J. Trump. He’s the mouth that has roared for over a year now. And Hillary Clinton has spent decades in the public spotlight. We all have firmly baked opinions about her.

Perhaps to stir up some excitement, the press is agog about tightening polls showing Hillary Clinton’s lead dropping. It’s still a rare poll that shows her numbers below Trump’s, at least nationally but polls are generally showing her numbers moving to within margin of error numbers. It’s clear that large majorities of Americans don’t particularly like either Clinton or Trump and wants someone else to vote for. Unsurprisingly some are looking at third party candidates instead: Jill Stein of the Green Party and Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party. Those voters who follow through seem to want to make a statement.

And they will make a statement if they don’t mind shooting themselves in the foot. This happened to me in 1980 when I voted for John Anderson for president. I hate to say our electoral system is rigged but when it comes to the presidential vote it certain is and it’s by design. This is because an Electoral College actually votes a president into office and because 48 of the fifty states have laws that whichever candidate wins a plurality of the votes in the presidential race gets all of the state’s electoral delegates.

This means the system is rigged so as to make it virtually impossible for any candidate not in a major party to win. But it also means that if you are voting third party, you are throwing away your vote. The only exception is if your third party candidate wins a plurality of the votes in your state. And while that may garner some electoral votes for your third party candidate, a whole lot of other states have to do the same for your candidate to actually win. In short, you have to bet that both the Democratic and Republican party candidates are so dysfunctional that a wholesale national voting rebellion is going to happen, something that has never happened in our country as best I can tell and probably can’t happen now in our polarized political environment.

In practical terms, this means to a Massachusetts resident like me that if I would have otherwise voted for Hillary Clinton and I vote for Jill Stein instead, I am effectively voting for Donald Trump since it will bump up his share of the votes as a percent of the state’s votes. And if I am a non-racist Alabaman that normally votes Republican but I am so disgusted by Trump’s racism that I vote for Gary Johnson instead, I am helping elect Hillary Clinton.

In my case in 1980 as a 23-year-old voting for third party candidate John Anderson, I was effectively voting for Ronald Reagan, the last candidate I would have voted for. Fortunately in the blue-state of Maryland, it didn’t matter as Maryland’s electoral votes went for Jimmy Carter. Nationwide though John Anderson took 6.6% of the popular vote. Conceivably had Anderson not run and those votes had gone to Carter instead (as research suggests) then that election would at least have been a lot closer. Carter lost by nearly 10% of the popular vote but where it matters, he received only 49 of the 270 electoral votes needed to win. Reagan’s election was a landslide by any standards, thanks probably to John Anderson’s spoiler effect. As bad as that was the 1984 election was worse. Walter Mondale garnered only 13 electoral votes (his home state of Minnesota and Washington D.C.) Reagan got the rest (525) and that was with no serious third party opposition. For a more recent event that shows the folly of voting third party, look at the 2000 election. Had the Green Party votes in Florida gone to Al Gore, there would have been no President George W. Bush.

Trump is right that the presidential voting system is rigged, but it’s always been that way. The Electoral College mess was designed by our founding fathers to get a commitment from southern states at the time the constitution was ratified. Without it, southern states would have probably never been able to elect a president. With slaves counting as 2/3 of a free person for a state’s share of electoral votes, with a few exceptions (like John Adams) for decades it made it virtually impossible for a non-southerner to become president.

So hopefully I’ve convinced you not to vote for Jill Stein or Gary Johnson. If still not convinced, consider that the Green Party and Libertarian Party are minority parties because their views are simply not mainstream views. I find a lot to admire about the Green Party but it’s a party of ideologues, not a party of pragmatists. For example, GMO foods are not going away and it’s folly at this time to try. Libertarians are easy to dismiss because it is wholly unworkable. Imagine selling all our roads, sewers and schools. Imagine no laws against pollution. It would be an unmanageable nightmare.

Which leaves you dear voter ultimately holding your nose while you vote for either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. (I realize there are some voters, particularly Trump voters who are actually enthusiastic about their candidate. Weird.) The other option is not to vote, but not voting is effectively the same as voting third party. You will effectively give more power to those that do vote.

So suck it up for democracy. Democracy ain’t pretty sometimes and it won’t be in this election. However, you have a duty to perform so do it mindful that the system is not perfect and your candidate won’t be either. If you really want the Green or Libertarian parties to grow, you have to do it the hard way by getting local and state candidates elected. With enough of them they may become a majority party in your state. Then you will have leverage, at least on the state level. Or you can work for a constitutional amendment to get rid of the Electoral College and make it based on actual votes.

Oh, and those polls? I’m still not worried. I think Clinton is still going to win based on state polls, which are the only ones that matter. With a majority of Americans saying they will never vote for Trump, the only way that Trump wins is if a lot of those voters stay home or vote third party instead of voting for Hillary. It’s unlikely but it can happen, and it could happen this year if you don’t vote with the left side of your brain instead of the right side.

I’ll be using the left side and voting for the imperfect Hillary Clinton.


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