According to recent polls, third party presidential candidates like Gary Johnson and Jill Stein are attracting the support of up to seven percent of the popular vote. In such a bitter, depressing, toxic, never-ending presidential election campaign, it’s not surprising that lots of voters are looking for alternatives to the two major party candidates. But here’s the thing: in America’s two-party system, voting for a third party candidate is a self-indulgent waste of time. Yes, it’s understandable to be angry with the choices that our two-party system is offering to you—but voting third party for president will not help anything; in fact, voting for a third party candidate often has the opposite effect of what you want to achieve as a voter. Even if Jill Stein and Gary Johnson were smart, reasonable candidates (they aren’t), voting for them for president is a waste of your time and ours. Instead of voting for a third party candidate, you and America might be better off if you just didn’t vote at all.
Check out this article from technology author Clay Shirky, who gets to the root of why voting third party is pointless at best, and self-defeating at worst.
A few reasons:
As Shirky explains, because of America’s two-party system, we already have a pretty accurate idea of who the president is going to be: It’s going to be either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. Your favorite third party candidate is never, ever going to win. Yes, occasionally a third party candidate can make some noise and win some votes, like Ross Perot did in 1992 when he won 19 percent of the popular vote—but Perot didn’t win a single electoral vote and was nowhere close to winning the White House.
The entire system is set up so that voters choose one of the two major party candidates to be president. Voting third party essentially says: “I don’t care who becomes president, and I’m going to let other voters decide for me.” Basically, America’s system has no way to acknowledge or process your third party vote. You can “send a message” by voting third party, but our system cannot “receive” that message or compute that input. If you wanted to vote against Trump and Hillary, you should have done it during the primary campaign. But now that they’re on the general election ballot, under the rules and constraints of our two-party system, you really do have to choose one of them.
People who vote third party for president often talk about how they wish there was an alternative to the major parties. OK, that’s fine—it’s understandable to feel frustrated with the limitations of American democracy. But here’s the thing: American democracy is not set up the same way as Germany and Canada and Australia and the UK; we don’t have a parliamentary, multi-party system where people can choose from multiple smaller parties which then get seats in the legislature based on a proportional percentage of the vote.
For example, Germany has a Green Party dedicated to environmental causes, which currently holds 10 percent of the seats in the German parliament; left-wing voters in Germany can vote Green and see their interests represented by an alternative to the center-left mainstream Social Democrats. In a multi-party system, multiple parties have to build a coalition government after each election. This is where compromises happen: After the election. Voters in a multi-party system get to feel more enthusiastic or ideologically pure by voting for the niche party that most accurately represents their values and interests, but their chosen political parties, once elected into office, still have to form a governing coalition and make compromises to suit the realities and interests of the full political spectrum.
America’s system works differently and requires a different sort of compromise: American voters themselves have to make compromises during the party primary campaigns and at the ballot box on Election Day to decide what they’re willing to accept from the two broad mainstream political parties, and decide which party’s candidates best represent their interests. It’s imperfect and sometimes frustrating, but this is how our system works: American voters themselves have to be involved in making unsatisfying tradeoffs and accepting half-measures and living with the results. As Shirky writes, “No one gets what they want in a democracy; two-party systems simply rub voters’ noses in that fact.”
Third party voters always talk about how they’re tired of choosing between the “lesser of two evils”—well, in American democracy, that’s what voting is. Grown-ups have to make hard choices and accept less-than-thrilling results every single day in life, and democracy is no different.
Even if you don’t care about the implications for the broader American political system, history has shown that third party voters ultimately do not tend to get what they want. Your “protest vote” goes in vain if a candidate you hate most ultimately gets elected. For example, in 1992, lots of people who might otherwise have voted for George H.W. Bush voted for Ross Perot instead—as a result, Bill Clinton got elected. In 2000, lots of Ralph Nader voters felt that Al Gore was not progressive enough; they were rewarded with President George W. Bush, the most incompetent, retrograde, warmongering president since Richard Nixon.
Your third party candidate is never going to win. But by NOT voting for your lesser-of-two-evils choice from the main two parties, you might unwittingly help send your “greater evil” candidate to the White House.
Are you unsatisfied with American democracy? If so, I have some bad news: the answer is for you to get MORE involved with the democratic process, not less.
Instead of casting a futile protest vote for a third party candidate in the hope that your abstention from the two-party system will somehow motivate the two major parties to change, you should work within a party to change the system from within.
Democracy is about more than just voting every four years; it’s about having an ongoing stance of vigilant activism and awareness. It’s about organizing groups of people to create social change and work toward common goals. It’s about raising money and knocking on doors and making phone calls and having tough conversations with people you don’t even know, because you believe in the cause strongly enough to take time out of your day to make it happen.
It seems like the loudest complaints about how “America needs a real third party alternative” come from people who don’t even bother to vote in primaries and midterm elections. If you’re not active enough in politics to even vote in a primary election, how do you expect to change the system? If you want a third party, go build a party, starting at the local grassroots level. But most people don’t have time and energy and attention span for that. Hell, even Jill Stein and Gary Johnson don’t seem to have the gumption to build a viable party or do anything more than show up on the ballot on Election Day—I had totally forgotten about this, but they both ran for president in 2012, too; and they got a combined 1.35 percent of the popular vote! Hahahaha! Apparently running for president as a third party candidate is just an every-four-years personal vanity project.
It’s a lot easier to complain every four years about how much you hate all the candidates and how the whole system sucks, instead of doing the hard work during the other 364 days a year of knocking on doors and raising money and calling strangers and creating a real, viable political organization. If you truly hate Trump and Hillary equally, and you really can’t decide between them, then you might as well just not vote. Because voting third party isn’t going to accomplish anything.
Of course, if you don’t vote, you don’t get to complain about your tax rates or your street full of unfixed potholes or American foreign policy or anything else America does. Not voting makes yourself invisible to the democratic system. Not voting is an act of self-silencing that plays into the hands of the cynical elites and corrupt special interests that are happy to keep enriching themselves with our tax dollars while the apathetic masses look on helplessly. Not voting is a surrender of constitutional rights that lots of good people suffered and died for you to have.
There’s a reason why politicians and pollsters and campaign consultants and media organizations spend so much time and money and energy trying to track the opinions of voters—it’s because THEY CARE WHAT VOTERS THINK because VOTERS ACTUALLY SHOW UP AND VOTE. Say what you will about the limitations of American democracy, but in America, despite our flaws, voters really do get to have the final say over who is in charge of the government. You never see Wolf Blitzer on CNN standing in front of a big chart about “what are the big issues influencing the opinions of NON-VOTERS this year.”
I used to work in politics; I’ve seen this happen with my own eyes. Politicians don’t care about you if you don’t vote; elected officials are ultimately accountable to the voters who elect them, not to the non-voters who stay home out of apathy and despair. In our system of government, if you don’t vote and make yourself counted, you might as well not exist.
America’s two-party system is far from perfect, but this is the system that we have, and there doesn’t seem to be enough popular momentum for a viable multi-party system anytime soon. But there are still lots of ways to work within the two-party system to get involved and make an impact on issues you care about, and it all starts with voting for the major party candidate of your choice.
The best way to get powerful people’s attention and hold elected officials accountable and ensure good governance is not to skip the election altogether or throw your vote away on a third party protest act; it’s to band together with like-minded groups of people who care about the same issues you do, and work within the two-party system to exercise your democratic rights. Vote, organize, fundraise, lobby, and do everything else that goes with being a well-informed citizen in a 21st century democracy; and not only on Election Day.