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Rethinking ‘wasted votes’ and third-party candidates

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Jill Stein (Green Party), Rocky Anderson (Justice Party), Virgil Goode (Constitution Party), and Gary Johnson (Libertarian Party).

When it comes to something as important as a presidential election, most Americans don’t want to vote for a candidate who will very likely lose. But pragmatic considerations have no place in the voting booth, for two reasons. First, one person’s vote almost certainly won’t impact a presidential election. Second, voting for someone we consider the “lesser of two evils” loses sight of the value of the voting process. We should, instead, vote for whomever we think is best for the office, regardless of his or her likelihood of winning. More and more voters are beginning to approach the election in this way.

Well over 50 candidates ran for president in 2012, 26 of whom had ballot access in at least one state. Ninety-eight percent of the popular vote went to just two of those candidates. The third place finisher, former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party, finished with just 1 percent of the popular vote.

This year is looking to be dramatically different. Gary Johnson and presumptive Green Party nominee Jill Stein have been receiving as high as 13 percent and 7 percent in national polls, respectively. These numbers are higher than those any third-party candidate has received in a general election since Ross Perot in 1992.

These numbers are partly the result of the fact that Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have the lowest favorability ratings for major United States presidential candidates ever measured. Dissatisfaction with the Republican and Democratic candidates was evident at the Republican National Convention, when, instead of endorsing Donald Trump, Ted Cruz told voters to “vote your conscience.” Along with Cruz, many voters are wondering if they are morally obliged to vote against both Trump and Clinton.

The most common objection to independent and third-party options is rooted in pragmatic concerns: a vote for any third-party candidate is a wasted vote, or even worse, an implicit vote for the worse of the two major-party candidates.

Even some voters who identify themselves with third parties are influenced by this way of thinking about elections. Wayne Allyn Root, for example, the Libertarian Party’s vice-presidential nominee in 2008, said recently at FreedomFest: “If you want to know whose side you should be on, there’s only two candidates. Please don’t try to tell me there’s a third or fourth – there aren’t. It’s either Hillary or it’s Donald Trump.”

The purpose of voting is clear: to reveal the will of the people. As Americans, we should do what we can to foster an election process that brings forth the candidates who best align with the will of the people. Trump and Clinton’s favorability ratings show that our election system, in its current state, is horrible at doing that.

This problem can be described more formally as a mismatch between voter preference and voter choice. What we’ve run into resembles what economists call a “collective action problem.”

A classic example of a collective action problem occurs when competing fisheries each overfish, leading to depletion of fish populations. All the fishermen know that in an ideal world, each fisherman would take the same number of fish. But the incentive to be the one person who comes out ahead by overfishing, as well as the fear of being the one person who does not overfish, destroys the fish population and hurts everyone in the long run.

Similarly, when it comes to the U.S. presidential election, we make compromises and limit our own voting options because we think voting independent or third-party will leave all the decision making power in the hands of other voters. If we vote for a candidate with low winning chances, our vote won’t have any impact on the election. The problem with this reasoning is that no matter who we vote for, our vote won’t impact the election, because in order to have that kind of impact, the election must be decided by just one vote. The probability of this happening is clearly negligible.

This problem, then, impacts voter choice as if it were a collective action problem, but lacks the incentive structure of such a problem. In the example above, to take one’s fair share of fish is to give up something significant. But by choosing to vote for a candidate with low winning chances, one does not give up any control of the election results, because none was really had in the first place.

In the fishing illustration, overfishing is a collectively irrational decision but an individually rational decision, in the sense of cost-benefit analysis. But voting for a presidential candidate who isn’t one’s first choice is both collectively irrational and individually irrational, because there’s nothing notable to be gained by doing so. For this reason, voting third-party is not overly idealistic or unrealistic; voting two-party when you prefer a third-party candidate is. After all, what assumption is more unrealistic than the idea that there is a notable chance of the presidential election being decided by only one vote?

So if one vote won’t make an impact, why should the average American vote at all?

The United States is like a ship we’re all rowing – if one person quits rowing, the rest of us won’t feel a difference on our oars, but if many of us quit, we lose control of the direction of our ship. This makes rowing a noble act of solidarity. Voting is the primary means by which the United States remains of the people, by the people, and for the people. Not all of us need to participate to attain this end, but is doing one’s part for the common good not also a worthwhile act?

I’m not arguing that we have a duty or moral obligation to vote. But it should not be said that there is no moral value in voting or that voting is a waste of time.

Voting for a candidate we consider the “lesser of two evils” loses sight of this value.

When one votes for a political candidate, she is also voting for the kind of electoral system she wants. If one prefers a candidate other than Clinton or Trump but buys into the idea of a two-party system and casts a vote for one of the major-party candidates, she is also, intentionally or not, voting for an electoral system with only two options. By casting a vote for a “lesser of two evils,” what we’re really doing is voting our own voice away. We’re endorsing a system in which our opinion is not represented.

There is only one way to waste your vote: voting for someone you don’t want to be president. It is simply not true that there are only two options, or three options, or 50,000 options in November. Voting should never give our conscience a regrettable, dirty feeling. When you vote, do it proudly and vote for someone you truly believe in, whether that’s Clinton, Trump, Johnson, Stein, or someone else. How much more democratic would our country be if everyone voted this way?

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Nathan Mech

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