Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Every time we talk to a Hillary Clinton backer about our support for a third party candidate we get the same response: “That’s immoral! A vote for anyone other than Hillary is a vote for Donald Trump!”
Their argument is essentially that Trump is worse than Clinton, so if Hillary Clinton loses, third party voters are morally responsible for all the harm that will come as a result of a Trump presidency. We understand their fear of Trump, but Clinton supporters, like Ryan Stanton in his article “The Morality of Third Party Voting,” are presenting a simplistic and narrow view of the role of voting in the political process. From both a principled and consequentialist perspective, voting for third party candidates, like Jill Stein and Gary Johnson, is morally acceptable.
The Principled Case For Voting Third Party
Unless a politician acts in a way that is inconsistent with the information available to the voter when they casted their vote, voting for a politician implicates you in any harmful policy enacted by that politician. This is because political figures derive their legitimate power from the consent and votes of the people. If, for example, a politician receives 10 votes, then those 10 voters are equally culpable for the damage caused by the policies they supported. Whether a vote is cast out of ardent support or to support the lesser of two evils, it sanctions and lends a mandate to harmful politics all the same. Clinton’s hawkishness in foreign policy is well-documented. For those who prefer not to enable foreign coups, assassinations, and wars, it is perfectly moral to abstain from voting for Clinton.
The only people responsible for a candidate achieving office are the people who voted for that candidate. When Clinton supporters complain that third party voters are handing the election to Trump, the underlying argument is that we are morally responsible for events we could have prevented. This is a baseless principle if you take it to its logical end by examining its ramifications in our everyday lives. The average american spends roughly $1,000 dollars a year on coffee. The cost of reducing our coffee intake would have no severe impact on our lives, but 1250 children could have been dewormed with that $1000. Are we morally responsible for the suffering of those children because we had the means to prevent it? Those who hold third party voters responsible for the outcome of the election would have to say that we are simply because we choose to spend our money on coffee instead of charity.
The Super PAC supporting Clinton, Priorities USA Action, is launching a multi-million dollar digital campaign to scare third party voters into supporting Clinton. Other progressive bigwigs like Elizabeth Warren, Al Gore, and Bernie Sanders, are attempting to shame third party voters as well. When these groups argue that we should vote for the best candidate that has a “chance,” they implicitly claim that when an individual votes they should take into account the expected behavior of the rest of the electorate. By that very same logic, PACs and the Democratic establishment were wrong to support Clinton in the primaries. Whether or not criticisms of Clinton have merit, her current 42/56 favorability split is the lowest of any Democratic nominee in history. The public’s perception of her was well known prior to the primary. If Hillary’s camp wants to put the onus of collective outcomes on those who want to voice their beliefs, they should look in the mirror first. The Democratic establishment should have taken their own advice and accounted for group behavior and collective outcomes by not nominating a candidate that can’t even beat Donald Trump.
The Consequentialist Case for Voting Third Party
The principled reasons for voting third party are not enough for many. They believe that voting for a third party candidate is never acceptable because of the risk that doing so will swing the election to Trump. This argument simply isn’t persuasive because the statistical probability of a single vote making a difference is so low.
According to Nate Silver, Andrew Gelman, and Aaron Edlin, in 2008 a vote in the closest tossup states had a one in 10 million chance of deciding the election. This year, because of the relative unpredictability of the election due to the high number of undecided voters and the tightening of the race, the probability of your voting making a difference is likely larger, but still infinitesimally small. For a bit of perspective, you are many times more likely to be hit by lightning this year, a one in a million chance, than cast the deciding vote in an election even if the election is essentially a tossup.
Honestly, if the election is a tossup we can understand grudgingly voting for Clinton or Trump as opposed to a preferred third party candidate. It may give you some peace of mind. One of us may even end up doing so. But the fact that there is one world in which your vote could swing the election does not mean that you should always refuse to vote third party.
It’s very easy to tell if the election will be close or not. Using statistical analysis, pollsters can accurately predict the likelihood of a Trump or Clinton victory. Websites like FiveThirtyEight’s election forecast can tell us the probability of a victory for either side on election day. Cast your vote for Hillary if the election is a tossup, we understand that decision. But if the race is clearly going to be a blowout, according to professionals, you should vote for a third party candidate since your vote won’t make a difference to the two major candidates.
While your vote almost certainly will not matter in determining the outcome of this election, it could still make a huge difference for third parties. Every vote counts for the Libertarians and Greens. While third parties won’t win in 2016, crossing certain vote thresholds can empower them in future elections and enable them to increase the influence of their ideas.
The biggest threshold for third parties is the national 5% threshold. If a party crosses 5% in the national vote they will be given access to federal public funds during the next election. These funds would massively boost the power of third party candidates to raise their name recognition and get out the vote. Gary Johnson and Jill Stein have struggled in recent weeks chiefly because they don’t have the money to raise their name recognition above 50%.
Crossing thresholds in a few states will also massively benefit future candidates by giving them automatic ballot access. Currently third party candidates must collect signatures to get on the ballot in most states, an expensive and time consuming process that the two major parties rarely have to go through. If the Libertarian and Green Parties can gain automatic ballot access they’ll be able to free up substantial resources to contest elections that they would otherwise use on ballot access.
But let’s be realistic, unless there’s a major shock to the system, the Greens and Libertarians aren’t going to start winning elections any time soon. That’s alright though. When third parties historically have success the major parties don’t just wait around to get beaten. They take action to neutralize the threat. The major parties end up co-opting many of the major planks of the rising third parties in order to steal back voters. For instance, at the beginning of the 1990s both Republicans and Democrats were solidly pro-free trade. But after the success of Ross Perot in the mid-90s both parties began co-opting his protectionist rhetoric because of its widespread popularity. The success of the Reform Party actually helped create the relatively anti-free-trade stances of the major parties that we see today.
If you support the major issues that the Libertarian and Green Parties care about, voting for them is the best way to force the major parties to take your ideas seriously. A vote for a third party can help keep the major parties accountable and make them evolve to meet the changing desires of the electorate. Anti-incarceration Republicans can vote for Gary Johnson to send a message to the GOP and anti-corporate democrats can vote for Jill Stein to send a message to the Democrats.
Voting for a third party candidate is not immoral. If you believe that the Gary Johnson or Jill Stein have ideas worth fighting for you shouldn’t feel guilty about casting your ballot for them. Clinton supporters are attempting to shame third party voters using flawed arguments.
We realize it may seem easy to justify an appeal to third party supporters to vote for a major party if you look just at the next four years ahead of us, but the damage from consistently voting for the lesser of two evils is adding up. It’s how we got stuck with a disappointing choice between Trump and Clinton in the first place. Getting rid of the stigma surrounding voting for the third parties is absolutely essential to keeping our politicians accountable in the coming years.
Image courtesy of Getty Images.