Every four years, two candidates dominate the airwaves as they run for the highest office in the United States. These two candidates have, historically, been from one of two camps, either Democratic or Republican. Yet every election cycle, some 3 million people cast votes for candidates whose names don’t have a (D) or an (R) beside them and are told each election that they have wasted their vote. This could not be further from the truth.
In the common lexicon, a “wasted vote” is one that is not cast for one of the two primary candidates. In reality, a “wasted vote” is one that does not count substantively towards representation. After all, votes are cast in the hopes of electing a leader, and if that candidate is not elected, then the vote has, ultimately, served no purpose.
There is no second place prize for presidential elections, so votes for the losing candidate will ultimately be worthless.
Why are third party candidates singled out in this? Simply, because their chances of election are lower.
Plurality, or “first-past-the-post” voting systems like our own foster the growth of a two party system by polarizing voters in two distinct majority groups in order to most effectively duel with the other for representation. This means that two parties are created and sustained largely by cultivating a feeling of fear or animosity towards the other side. One only needs to tune in to the mudslinging political ads every election year for proof of this phenomenon.
In this way, we can see how voting for a third party seems to stoke the flames; third party candidates belong to neither group, and votes for them do not count for either Republican nor Democratic candidates, and so pundits, activists, and politicians concerned about their party’s support will often demonize third party candidates to attempt to scare voters back into their camp.
This, however, is directly at odds with the principles of democracy.
When a pundit says that Jill Stein is taking votes away from Hillary Clinton, they are insinuating that those voting for the Green Party nominee would have otherwise voted for Clinton had Stein not have run. This line of argument is oft repeated in regards to the election of 2000 wherein Ralph Nader allegedly cost Al Gore the election.
This argument, however, assumes a number of things. First, it assumes that those who voted for Nader would have otherwise voted for Gore, which is not necessarily true. Second, it assumes that those who voted for Nader still would have voted at all had he not run under the Green ticket and “spoiled” the election. Lastly, it assumes that popular political opinions are only valuable if they culminate in the election of a candidate.
This line of thinking would continue by saying that people need not bother voting for the candidate they most agree with; instead, they should vote for whomever least disturbs their conscience. This is a terrible way to run a republic.
Hillary Clinton is not entitled to votes cast for Jill Stein. Donald Trump, not entitled to votes for Gary Johnson. Support for these two candidates this election cycle, such as support for Ralph Nader in 2000, and Ross Perot’s in 1992, reflects a portion of the voting population dissatisfied with the binary choices presented to them by the political establishment and the government at large in the contemporary United States.
To say this election is too precious a time for a protest vote entirely misses the point of the democratic process; voting should not be a practice of damage control rooted in fear, it is an opportunity to voice an opinion and have a say in how your country is run.
The only way the stranglehold of Republicans and Democrats in our electoral system can be broken is by empowering the third parties that more adequately represent the will of the people. Though the popular vote will not get a presidential candidate elected, if the Libertarian or Green candidates are able to garner just 5 percent of the popular vote this November (just 6.5 million out of a projected 131 million voters) their parties would qualify as “minor parties,” ensuring their party’s place on every ballot in the country come 2020, as well as offer them federal money towards campaigning and primaries.
Pragmatically, any vote for a losing candidate is a wasted vote. On principle, however, any vote cast for a candidate a voter doesn’t agree with is wasted as well. So whether you’re for Johnson/Weld, Stein/Baraka, or McMullin and whatever his running mate’s name is, it’s important that everyone vote with their conscience this election cycle.
Voting for the lesser of two evils only incentivizes more evil in Washington and if nothing else, at least in you’ll be able to shrug your shoulders a year from now and say “don’t look at me, I voted for the Aleppo guy.”