In Defense of Wasting Your Vote

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.

Patrick Holland

Patrick is a senior from Bethesda, Maryland and a political science major who spends so much time fretting about American politics that it's probably not all that healthy. In addition to editing for The Daily Gazette, he is a member of the Peaslee Debate Society and an occasional runner. While Patrick likes to stay busy, he regrets the fact that he has very little time for Netflix in his life because he wants to rewatch The West Wing very badly.


  1. Your article is clearly well-thought out, and I appreciate the effort to make the reasoning of what is perhaps an unpopular opinion heard on campus. However, that doesn’t mean I agree with it, for the following reasons:

    1. You are not culpable for every action your elected candidate makes, even if all of those actions were part of the candidate’s platform. It is unfair to ask voters to vote for someone that agrees with them in every single regard, because if that were the rule, voters could only really vote for themselves. There are only so many candidates, and so, if anything, voters need to pick the one that best represents them. If we did take this premise as true, in voting for Jill Stein you would be agreeing to be held culpable for any actions she took against vaccinations, and in voting for Gary Johnson you would be agreeing to be held culpable for him abolishing the Department of Education.
    2. The coffee metaphor is misleading and wrong. Voting for a 3rd party candidate is more like having 2 options: you have one token, and you can either use it to save a child, harm a child, or you can throw it away. There is nothing else you can do with the token, and voting for the 3rd party is the equivalent of throwing the token away.
    3. Obviously, Clinton can beat Trump. She hasn’t yet, and she may not, but it’s ridiculous to say that she can’t. Right now she is polling higher than Trump is (see 538: http://projects.fivethirtyeight.com/2016-election-forecast/?ex_cid=rrpromo#now)
    4. No, a single vote probably won’t make a difference. It is the sum of all of our voices that decides elections, and while I won’t change the results of an election by myself, the amount of people who vote at Swarthmore College has been the margin of victory for local elections, and you can bet that the 7% of the American population that is currently planning on voting for Gary Johnson could certainly swing the election if they voted for one of the two major candidates (especially since he is polling higher in battleground states)
    5. Sure, if you vote in a place where the election is already decided, vote for whoever you want. But you don’t. Pennsylvania is a critical battleground state, and our district is a battleground district, and therefore your vote here matters (and if you haven’t already, you can register to vote here).

    Based on these points, I reject your argument that voting for a 3rd party candidate has no moral and even consequential ramifications, but I would love to hear a response 🙂

  2. Thank you for saying it better than I ever could – especially regarding the tragic consequences of the mindless parroting of the spoiler argument.

  3. I disagree. In the current political climate, and within our political system, it is /absolutely/ immoral to vote for a third party candidate if you would otherwise have voted for Clinton.

    First, our political system is not a proportional-representation system. Unless Johnson or Stein gets 270 electoral votes, which neither will, all of the votes for them mean nothing more than the Libertarians might qualify for federal campaign funding next election cycle. If you remember the 2000 election, and how the relatively successful third-party bid of Ralph Nader took critical votes from Gore in Florida? Yeah, those third-party votes stuck us with the Shrub for 8 years, and were therefore indirectly responsible for Iraq, Afghanistan, the Patriot Act, No Child Left Behind, and every other petty idiocy of the Bush administration.

    Second, this is NOT a normal election. We do NOT have the choice between Candidate Acceptable and Candidate Moderately Distasteful. Or even Candidate Good and Candidate Mediocre. We have Candidate Decent and /Donald fucking Trump/, a narcissistic fascist who wants to ban a religion from the US and build a ridiculously expensive and wasteful border wall, whose foreign policy is gung-ho at best and cavalier with nuclear weapons, and who’s cozying up to authoritarian despot Vladimir Putin while pissing on the Chinese, who currently own a not insignificant portion of the national debt.

    If Trump were merely a bad candidate on the level of, say, Bush 2, Bush 1, or Reagan, it would be more morally acceptable to vote third-party, since there’s only so much damage that even idiots like Bush 2 and Reagan could do. Trump is not merely a bad candidate. He is a perverse lovechild of Hitler, Mussolini, and Kim Kardashian. He is a narcissistic idiot with no grasp of foreign or domestic policy, a sexist and racist pig who has no understanding of the value of money, no empathy, and outright negative empathy for those less wealthy than himself, who he has made a business of screwing over.

    I don’t disagree that Hillary Clinton is a deeply flawed candidate. She’s definitely worse than Obama. But Trump is SO bad that all measures must be taken to keep him from office. To paraphrase John Oliver, if raisins are flaws then Obama is a cookie with two raisins, Clinton is a cookie with ten raisins, and Trump is 5000 pounds of raisins that we will be force-fed if we don’t suck it up and eat the ten-raisin cookie by voting for Clinton in November.

    I’m a communist and a passionate Bernie Sanders supporter, and I know damn well what I’m doing this fall. I’m eating that ten-raisin cookie and doing my part to stop Trump from getting power.

    • So you are saying the your political affiliation to the Democrat party is more important then WHO Clinton really is?
      lets see, Petreus had 5 classified docs in an unsecured but locked desk. The same people that prosecuted him and assured he could never had security clearance (therefore unable to run for President as he was going to do) gave Clinton a pass for hundreds more docs in unsecured control….in fact they violated many federal laws to do so. Certainly there is no ethics involved and no justice involved. Remember her IT man, most of her staff had access to those files..and in fact did access them, as well as her attorneys having read all of them during illegal spoliation of evidence (conspiracy and 20 years for spoliation of evidence as a criminal act…look it up).

      Then we have Benghazi….400 emails asking for Marines, for US troops instead of contractors. Emails detailing the risks…asking to initiate bug out procedures before 911 came because it was too dangerous to stay. Emails asking for any way out.. Clinton claims Stevens was her “friend” but in her official capacity condemned him to over 12 hours of torture including having his genitals BURNED OFF.

      IT took many hours for him to be over run and she could easily have saved this Embassy….warded of an over run of US SOIL. Then Clinton LIED to the WORLD and to US. She stated that this attack was over a movie…she then named the movie. This stopped the movie from playing in theaters because INSURANCE companies would not insure due to Islamic Rioting if it played. This cost the producers and investors of the movie a complete loss of income…then the threats on their lives began.

      All the while this person..Hillary Clinton…who caused ALL the damage and lied causing more damage KNEW that benghazi was a terrorist attack all the time. It turns out that she KNEW it BEFORE it actually happened because she knew it AS IT WAS HAPPENING.

      THis is the person that you believe should represent us? one that has LIED to the public over and over and over…one who ONLY does things for personal gain? one who can’t even make a rational decision about a US embassy when all the facts are known and she has the power to do something about it..and the responsibility?

      Oh, lets not forget Hillary in her job delivering hundreds of millions of US funds to an island country for relief. Less than a week later her relative obtains the only gold rights ever sold for mining in that little country. Everyone has wanted them for 90 years…no dice..then suddenly……sold to a Clinton member for ….1/4 to 1/3 the global value!!! OMG and you think this woman is HONEST? not an honest bone in her body. Not an Honest Breath to be inhaled.

      I will not even talk about how she attacked any woman who was victimized by her husband and made official reports or tried to seek justice criminally or civilly. This woman Hillary Clinton has done more to harm women than any 5 Trumps! Hell at least Trump has many of the Highest paid women in the world working for him…Runs the biggest beauty pageant in the world, and many of his female employees have talked of how he groomed them to be excellent at their jobs. Some even told of how he EXPECTED MORE of them than men…because he was MENTORING THEM to be GREAT.

      Enough said. You can be as insane as you please…no way that I want to live in the United States that you perceive as “good” if you think an ethic-less criminal (most likely murderer) like Hillary Clinton should be President.

  4. It may be true that a vote for an alternate candidate is one’s right but a write in vote for the pizza guy down the street who makes the best pie is the same as saying the heck with the outcome. The country has become so rigidly divided and so evenly divided that third party votes do tip elections. Nader voters could have tipped Florida to Al Gore. Instead we got eight years of George Bush and his neocons who tipped us into trillions of dollars of never ending pointless war and a tanked economy. Would that have happened if Gore were elected? We’ll never know but I’ll bet a much different picture.

    Its hardly an issue of lesser than two evils. Was McCain vs. Obama a lesser of two evils? What evil did Obama present to the country? In 2012 what evil was Obama fomenting in the face of his Republican opponent Mitt Romney? This election is not about party. It’s about a vision of what the country is and should be. Should we seek a president who sees social responsibility as a primary role of government or a president who sees the primary role of government as a tool to shovel money up the ladder to the wealthiest segment of the population. We have never been presented so stark a contrast and yet there are people who feel that Trump and Clinton are moral equivalents?? You’ve got to be kidding me…

    If third parties want to present issues that’s great, form a PAC but stay out of elections.

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