Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton Photo credit: Gage Skidmore/Marc Nozell
Is Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton really the only choice we have in November?
Photo credit: Gage Skidmore/Marc Nozell

People want their vote to matter. On both the left and the right, voters whose consciences won’t allow them to back either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton are warned: if they vote their conscience they’ll have the election of the more despised candidate on their head. Even worse they’re told that a vote for a candidate not from a major party is a wasted vote.

As I’ve written before, these arguments are a tool of politicians and their supporters to deflect blame from their own incompetence. If you’re on the left and you want to blame anyone for Al Gore’s loss of Florida, you could blame Gore for running an uninspired campaign. You could also blame President Clinton who, due to his lack of self-control and honesty, wasted his second term and brought about a thirteen month long process which led to his impeachment and eventual disbarment. You could further blame Clinton for his over-zealous intervention in the Elian Gonzalez affair which alienated voters in Miami’s Cuban community. You could also blame citizens who decided they would vote for the Green Party nominee Ralph Nader, which is the Democrats’ preferred approach.

There’s also a lack of understanding of the electoral process in these arguments. The Presidency is not decided by the national popular vote. It’s decided by the Electoral College. Most states have voted predictably since the turn of the century, and this election will come down to between eight and ten swing states. Those saying people in California, Massachusetts, or Idaho must vote for Donald Trump or we’ll be responsible for electing Hillary Clinton, or vice versa, need to be advised Trump will win Idaho, and Clinton will win the other two states.  This will happen regardless of how the conscientious objectors vote. If electoral votes in most states don’t go as expected then the election will be a landslide one way or another.

Even in swing states this is a stupid reason for voting. In the 2000 election in Florida if a couple who voted for Nader voted for Al Gore instead that would have merely reduced Bush’s margin to 535 votes instead 537.  If you’re voting because you think your vote is some strategic weapon on which the fate of the nation might turn, you’re doing it wrong. No matter who you vote for the odds are several billion to one that it will not change who is sworn in on January 20th, 2017.

Your vote matters, but it’s not a magic election-influencing talisman. It’s your voice in what type of country we want to have, and what type of principles should govern our nation. Like most Americans, I’ve voted for the nominee of a major party in every election I voted in. I believed, despite their flaws, the major party nominees I’ve supported would take our country in the right direction. However, this year, we have two nominees who I believe will take our country in the wrong direction. If you believe that too it’s appropriate to vote for someone else.

Aren’t voters who support third party candidates forfeiting their right to influence the direction of the country? Not necessarily.

The two-party system in American is taken as a given and we rarely think about why it has existed with the same two parties for the last 162 years. While third-party advocates will point to the systemic advantages of the two parties in ballot access and fundraising, it goes deeper than that. Whenever a third party gets serious support the major parties respond to the concerns of third party voters so that they may co-op them. The following historical examples show this.

1892:  James Weaver won 8.5% of the vote as the nominee of the Populist Party. In 1896, the Democrats adopted much of the Populist platform and nominated populist-champion William Jennings Bryan in three of the next four presidential elections.

1992: Ross Perot won 19% of the vote as an independent campaigning on government reform and deficit reduction. Perot’s agenda was embodied in the GOP’s 1994 Contract with America which was brought to a vote on the House Floor in 1995. The budget deficit was reduced and actually balanced in 1997.

2000: Nader won 3% of the vote but his nomination had a huge impact. Both Clinton and Gore were considered more center-left, but the Democratic Party moved much further left in response to Nader in 2004. They nominated John Kerry who was the most liberal member of the Senate. In 2008 they once again nominated the most liberal member of the Senate in Barack Obama. Nader’s supporters deserve credit (or blame) for making the Democratic Party a far more liberal progressive party than it would be otherwise.

Thus history shows that even a small percentage of voters can send a message that forces major parties to change direction. If the major parties don’t respond, and continue to ignore the concerns of voters, they risk extinction as another example of history shows.

In 1840, slavery was an issue that American political leaders cared little about. In fact, Congress had passed a rule refusing to even receive petitions from citizens who were concerned about tie issue of slavery. In 1840, the abolition Liberty Party received less of than 1% of the vote. In 1844, the LP won 3% of the vote and was thought by many to have cost the Whigs the Presidential election as their vote total in New York was more than triple that of pro-slavery Whig Henry Clay. The Whigs responded by nominating another pro-slavery candidate in 1848 with Zachary Taylor, while an even larger anti-Slavery party emerged in the form of the Free Soil Party that won 10% of the vote. In 1852, the Whigs tried to have it both ways by nominating an anti-slavery candidate with a pro-slavery platform, but the party lost in a landslide and disappeared to be replaced by the Republican Party.

Americans voting according to their consciences can have a huge impact on this election and can force parties to reform or die. In fact, three or four percent of voters standing against the corrupt choice offered to us may have more impact than the overwhelming majority blessing that choice with their vote. Those who vote their conscience shouldn’t let anyone tell them that they’re wasting their vote by doing so.

3 comments
  1. This year we cannot assume that previously predictable states will vote predictably if voters in those states don’t vote predictably. Georgia and Arizona are 2 examples of states that may not vote as usual.

    In ordinary plurality voting a vote cast for a splinter candidate generally produces the politically counter-productive effect of helping the major-party candidate whose views are diametrically opposite to those of the voter.

    The current state-by-state winner-take-all system does not protect the two-party system. It simply discriminates against third-party candidates with broad-based support, while rewarding regional third-party candidates. In 1948, Strom Thurmond and Henry Wallace both got about 1.1 million popular votes, but Thurmond got 39 electoral votes (because his vote was concentrated in southern states), whereas Henry Wallace got none. Similarly, George Wallace got 46 electoral votes with 13% of the votes in 1968, while Ross Perot got 0 electoral votes with 19% of the national popular vote in 1992. The current system punishes third-party candidates whose support is broadly based.

  2. By changing state winner-take-all laws (not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, but later enacted by 48 states), without changing anything in the Constitution, using the built-in method that the Constitution provides for states to make changes, the National Popular Vote bill would guarantee the presidency to the candidate who receives the most popular votes in the country.

    Every vote, everywhere, for every candidate, would be politically relevant and equal in every presidential election.

    The bill would take effect when enacted by states with a majority of the electoral votes—270 of 538.
    All of the presidential electors from the enacting states will be supporters of the presidential candidate receiving the most popular votes in all 50 states (and DC)—thereby guaranteeing that candidate with an Electoral College majority.

    The bill has passed 34 state legislative chambers in 23 rural, small, medium, large, red, blue, and purple states with 261 electoral votes.
    The bill has been enacted by 11 small, medium, and large jurisdictions with 165 electoral votes – 61% of the 270 necessary to go into effect.

    National Popular Vote

  3. For some (not me), voting FOR Trump (or Hillary) is an exercise of following their own consciences. They are convinced that to vote for a third party candidate is shirking their duty to vote for the better of two candidates. They don’t try to change my vote and I am not trying to change theirs.

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