The Logic (or Lack of) Behind Third Party Voting
August 13, 2020
I want to discuss the strategy and logic behind the decision to vote third party or sit out of an election. Below are some of the common reasons people use to vote third party, and I’ll discuss each of these.
1.) If a third party does well in this election maybe more people will start to see that party as a viable option and we can stop choosing the lesser of two evils. 2.) The candidates are both bad, I don’t want to vote for either. 3.) I genuinely like this third party candidate a lot. 4.) My vote doesn’t matter so it doesn’t really change anything if I vote third party.
This may not be a comprehensive list but I think these are some of the primary considerations. People often have more than one of these reasons for voting third party, and some of these apply to people who abstain from voting. The following discussion isn’t intended to be specific to this election year. It mainly only applies to presidential elections, some of these responses aren’t as valid at the state or local level.
1.) If a third party does well this election maybe more people will start to see that party as a viable option and we can stop choosing the lesser of two evils.
This reasoning depends on a couple assumptions. One is that there are enough voters out there who would prefer a certain third party to one of the two main parties. Another is that our voting system is stable with three or more prominent parties.
The first assumption is at least plausible, but I’m also very skeptical. For one, the reason the two main parties have remained in power so long is because the parties’ politics shift to match public opinion as best they can. One example is same-sex marriage. The opinion of both the general public and of Democratic politicians shifted very quickly on this issue. That change is likely both because Democratic politicians genuinely changed their opinion like many in the public did, and also because they had to shift their public stance or risk getting voted out. Even most Republican politicians no longer talk about this issue because the public opinion has shifted so much. So the idea that a third party is going to capture enough of the voters from either of the main two parties to win an election is hard to believe.
The second assumption is the idea that our electoral system can support more than two parties. I don’t think it can, and the reason is because of how voting currently works. We cast one vote for one person. This system requires compromise and consolidation. Imagine if there were 100 candidates of about equal popularity. No one would win, a different candidate would probably win each state and no candidate would get enough electoral votes to win the electoral college (you need 270 out of 538 to win). To win the field has to consolidate enough so that a candidate can receive a majority of electoral votes. That consolidation can either happen by voters cooperating and focusing on one compromise candidate or by candidates cooperating and dropping out to support other candidates. The candidates that are similar but stay in the race will split votes and each be weaker than they otherwise would be.
That same effect works when going from two to three candidates. If there are more than two candidates those that are the most similar will split votes and be weaker than they otherwise would have been. Having a third party only strengthens the party that’s furthest away politically from the third party, and the stronger the third party the bigger this effect. Theoretically the third party could get large enough to replace one of the two main parties, but it would likely take many years of lost elections for the two weaker parties to swap. The largest percent of votes for a third party in the last 100 years was for Ross Perot, running as an independent in 1992. He got 18.91%, and even a showing that good didn’t lead to renewed interest or greater success for third party candidates.
2.) The candidates are both bad, I don’t want to vote for either.
This is a reason that can be used for both voting third party and not voting. As described in the discussion of reason 1, a third party vote is very unlikely to result in a viable third party or end lesser of two evils voting. It’s essentially the same as abstaining. So I’m going to refer to both as abstaining in the discussion of reason 2.
One of the two major party candidates will win. By abstaining you are not expressing your preferences at all. Your opinions have no effect on the outcome. And usually the idea that the two main party candidates are the same is just a figure of speech. They’re clearly different in many ways. Just as an example look at Biden and Trump. Biden wants to rejoin the Paris climate change accord, Trump left it. Biden wants to increase the number of refugees admitted to the US, Trump has been decreasing the amount admitted. These are just two differences out of many, but both are things that the president essentially has complete control over and can change on their own without Congress.
Despite the existence of differences it may still be reasonable to abstain if overall you think they will be equally bad. Maybe you don’t care about immigration, or what the tax rate is, or climate change policy, or healthcare, or gun policy or any of those things the candidates normally have wide differences on. Maybe you only care about specific things like abuse of presidential power, global nuclear disarmament, or our relationship with Canada and you think both candidates would be equally bad on that issue. Or maybe you do care about the other things too but both candidates are a mix of okay and really bad on those issues. If you legitimately can’t decide which would be worse it makes sense to abstain. But only as long as you’ve made a genuine effort to compare the two and have fully considered the impact that the differing policies would have not only on you but also on other people in the country.
In reality that’s not always how the “both sides are the same” reason is used. Often it’s that one side wants to do things the abstainer hates, while the other side wants to do some things the abstainer hates and some things that are sort of in the right direction but don’t go nearly far enough. In this scenario abstaining accomplishes nothing. One of the two will still win, but the abstainer gets no say in which things are at least sort of in the right direction.
3.) I genuinely like this third party candidate a lot.
This one is similar to reason 2 except that voting third party isn’t only a protest vote, the third party candidate genuinely aligns with you on most policy preferences. Sometimes people who use this reason may even like one of the main party candidates but they just like a third party candidate a lot more. The same discussion for reason 2 still applies. As much as they align with your policy preferences and values, by voting for the third party candidate you are essentially not voting, your preferences aren’t being counted toward the actual decision being made.
4.) My vote doesn’t matter so it doesn’t really change anything if I vote third party.
This one can be true, depending on where you live. A voter in California who would normally vote Democrat but wants to vote third party for whatever reason is probably pretty safe in doing that. But as I discussed for reasons 1 through 3 it’s probably ineffective to do that regardless. And which states are competitive can vary election to election. While California and Kentucky are probably not going to be competitive anytime soon, this year Texas, which is traditionally a red state, is polling pretty close. And near my neck of the woods there’s Nebraska 2, the district of Nebraska containing Omaha, which is close too and could potentially flip from Trump to Biden.
I think that covers the main reasons people vote third party or abstain. In summary the only logical reason to vote third part or abstain is if you genuinely believe the two candidates would be equally bad after fully researching and considering the effects of their different policies on you, your fellow Americans, and the country itself. Your vote shouldn’t be thought of as a moral endorsement or a perfect expression of your politics, it should be thought of as expressing your preference between the candidates most likely to win.
If you don’t like that third parties aren’t viable in the United States then start advocating for ranked choice voting. Ranked choice voting would allow everyone to vote for their first preference without wasting their vote, because once the first choice was found not to have enough support their vote would shift to their second choice, and so on. I think this would increase voter satisfaction and allow everyone to see what the country’s true preferences are. However, if we do someday manage to switch to ranked choice voting I think people should be prepared for the possibility that it doesn’t change the two party presidential system. Like I discussed in reason 1, the two main parties are probably many people’s genuine first choice out of all the options. But if that’s actually the case at least our voting system would reveal that and we could move on from the theory that everyone would vote third party if they just knew more about them or stopped voting for the lesser of two evils.
Thoughts? Did I miss any important factors or argue any of these badly or unfairly? Follow me on social media and share your thoughts.