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Third Party Votes, Strategy, and Electoral Structure

“If only we had a viable third party,” complain many American voters as they face the prospect of Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump becoming President. (Or, as FiveThirtyEight appears to predict these days , of Hillary Clinton becoming President—on another note, regarding El Naranja, I do think some of these people ignore the fact that Trump’s sometimes idiosyncratic combination of views is what might happen with a third party.)

I used to wish we had a successful third party, and to some extent still do (being in what I am wagering will still not be a swing state, I am planning on writing in the Constitution Party candidates in the Presidential/Vice Presidential race).

However (as, I believe, was pointed out to me by one of my fellow-authors here awhile back), countries in which there are single member constituencies tend to just have two strong parties (maybe three, but usually two).

In some countries, parties get representation proportionally, so if a certain percentage (typically above a certain minimum threshold) of people vote for a party, there will be at least a small number of legislators representing that party. If the U.S. had a system in which the house of representatives was selected via a nationwide vote and parties got a proportion of the legislature based on that vote, we can expect that a greater number of people would vote for the Libertarian, Green, and Constitution Parties. Why? Because much of the fear of their vote aiding the Democrats or Republicans (depending on the political leanings and concerns of any given voter) would be removed.

However, after the election, the parties would (unless one got a majority) then need to cooperate with each-other to pass legislation and select whatever officers the legislature had the authority to select. The end result might then be rather like the primary system—with the government enacting policies many voters dislike—either by being too far to the center by mixing and moderating the various views of the parties in the coalition, or by making concessions to quirky positions of smaller parties. So, perhaps it would be rather like certain active parts of (to pick the major party in whose primary I vote) the GOP getting positions in place opposed by moderate members, and certain moderate positions being adopted to appeal to the general electorate which alienate more conservative members, with the difference that less of the decisions on compromising and extreme-position-adopting would take place in the primary, and more would take place in the legislature. In one system there tends to be more intense ideological divisions within larger parties, in another, there tends to be more intense fights between a larger number of smaller parties. As it is in the U.S., the various ideologies which might form third party tend to fight each-other in the primary and then join with each-other after the primary—in a system in which each party got a percentage of the legislature they could unite once the legislature was elected, with the legislative general election serving some of the purposes of a primary in the U.S.

Now, perhaps the timing and combination of the compromising and horse-trading in a system with lots of small parties is better, or perhaps it is better in a system with two big parties and hotly-contested primaries. However, by (inter alia) having one representative per congressional district, the U.S. system supports the big-party-with-intense-fights-within-the-party system, rather than the deciding-issues-by-fights-and-compromises-among-many-smaller-parties system.

Now, even in our system, there are good reasons to vote third party. (Cf. .) Many U.S. voters ignore the electoral college system even as they argue about how to vote. “You’ll help the other side win”. Well, if the major party candidate that I dislike more ends up with the same number of electoral votes either way, maybe not. In many states, you can vote third party with a very low risk you will flip the election in favor of the major party you dislike most—and with little risk even if most people of your ideology did the same (though I am not saying that you should just consider whether your own single vote will tip the election—I think that’s a bit irresponsible).

Now, maybe you want to flip the election in order to aggressively pressure the party you think more amenable to your views to move your way (being a certain-to-vote-their-way demographic might result in being taken for granted and your chosen issues not prioritized), or maybe you just want to protest by lowering your more-preferred major party’s margin  of victory. In either case, the electoral college system affects what your third party vote is likely to do. In my case, I’d prefer to protest Trump without Hillary winning electoral votes from my state—I judge that Hillary will not, despite some hopes and relatively high polling, win Texas. So, I feel better about voting third party (even though I would pick Trump over Hillary because I do think he is relatively likely to pick a conservative Supreme Court justice, despite his lack of strong ideological commitment to conservative causes).

A third party vote is a better form of protest than not voting (or voting for your less-disfavored major party) because it helps to signal the direction in which you are discontented (and shows you aren’t just too lazy to show up at the polls). So, if the candidate likes government to be larger than you do, voting for a third party that emphasizes smaller government will help to send a signal that is what you wanted, or, if you are a social conservative and Trump is dissatisfying for not being one, voting for a socially conservative minor party can help to signal that. Protesting by voting Green Party probably doesn’t make sense if you are a limited-government-constitutionalist-social-conservative.

Now, the fact that the system is not the one which facilitates lots of parties doesn’t mean they can’t ever win—they could win by replacing one major party, for example.  If a third party wants to win even without replacing a major party, it is more likely to do so if it takes into account our system and the structural spurs towards a two party system—so, at the presidential level it needs to take into account the electoral college. I did see one libertarian push to get voters to sign up to vote for Gary Johnson while being paired with someone coming out of another major party—this is an attempt to at least address some of the structural issues ( Even though I don’t support Gary Johnson, I think this is, in terms of strategy, a relatively prudent attempt on the part of his supporters.

On the other end, this Federalist Article gets it half right . A third party could win via the House of Representatives, however, the writer’s focus on swing states really misunderstands the incentive structure here. Swing states are the ones in which (unless the third party candidate is unusually popular there), votes transferred from a major party to a third party are most likely to lead to the election going to the other major party. I doubt the readers of this The Federalist author are likely to hail equally from both major parties, so a drop off in support driven by this article or others from related social circles is likely to benefit Hillary more than Trump. Further, with Trump so far behind in swing states, it might make sense for non-major party candidates to urge their supporters in swing states to vote for Trump in order to have a chance at getting into the House of Representative phase of the presidential selection after winning Utah (Evan McMullin) or New Mexico (Gary Johnson). Now, in the event no one has an electoral college majority, according to the Constitution’s Twelfth Amendment ( only the top three electoral-vote-getters make it before the House, so it makes sense for Johnson to try and win one other state (Utah has more electoral votes than New Mexico, so if both went for their higher-polling non-major party candidates and all the other states went for a major party candidate only McMullin’s campaign would make it before the House along with Hillary and Trump). Of course, maybe Johnson values the Libertarian Party polling well in swing states above a strategy of getting before the House, and there could be reasons it would make sense to tell his swing state supporters to go ahead and vote for him  (there are other things to be gained that might incentivize not risking lowering one’s overall vote percentage in order to get before the House, like future ballot access for your party, or access to federal election funds—and Johnson appears to be polling relatively well in swing states).

By Gary Johnson from Taos, NM - JohnsonWeldPortrait (2), CC BY 2.0,

By Gary Johnson from Taos, NM - JohnsonWeldPortrait (2), CC BY 2.0,

So above are some general thoughts on voting third party. With regard to specific candidates, of the third party candidates currently running, only the libertarian Presidential ticket, Gary Johnson and William Weld, has the type of experience traditionally associated with actually getting elected President. Now, it does not appear that the Johnson ticket is going to win, but his status as a former governor does give him an edge over other third party candidates in terms of persuading voters he is a credible alternative. I don’t intend to vote for them, because they are campaigning as pro-choice and as pro-marriage “equality.” Now, if they were making a point of saying that both of these were state issues and that they supported appointing judges who would overturn Roe v. Wade and Obergefell v. Hodges, I would strongly consider voting for them even without sharing their views on what should be done at the state level. As it is I intend to vote for the pro-limited government and pro-social conservatism Constitution Party ticket.

With regard to Evan McMullin, my initial reaction to his independent candidacy was the same as the title of this recent article: The just cited article gives some specific reasons for people like myself, who opposed the Iraq War and disliked the nation-building of the Bush and Clinton years, to be opposed to him—he appears to represent a protest against Trump (which I could get on-board with), but this protest appears to be conducted via his candidacy rather than existing third parties because those third parties do not represent the beliefs of foreign policy hawks. Further, social conservatives have little reason to support him, given his statement that he would not appoint judges who would repeal Obergefell v. Hodges (—even if one supports homosexual marriage, this decision should be overruled as a matter of following our constitutional structure—marriage is the sort of issue which the states were supposed to handle (for the general point about division of power, I refer the reader to The Federalist Number 45 It might be objected that if McMullin follows through on his indications he will appoint conservative and pro-life judges, then they will likely also oppose Obergefell—but similar reasoning might be used to argue that if Gary Johnson appoints strict constructionist judges, they will likely be opposed to Roe v. Wade and Obergefell v. Hodges.

If one is not a social conservative, it makes more sense to vote for Gary Johnson than for McMullin (unless you really like war). If one is a social conservative, it makes more sense to vote for the Constitution Party candidates than for McMullin. Why are people who are not especially hawkish voting McMullin? Partly because Mormons are voting for a Mormon (the Constitution Party Vice Presidential Candidate is, the internet informs me, a Mormon, but lacks the visibility McMullin has been given). A sizable component of McMullin voters appear to be Republicans who want someone nicer and more competent than Trump—which is fair enough, but McMullin appears to be a flawed vehicle for such a protest vote. In a way, the rush to vote McMullin reminds me of the support for Ben Carson in the primary—a way to signal support for niceness and opposition to racism without careful consideration of whether this particular candidate is a good choice. While McMullin is more likable than Trump and seems reasonably competent, it seems unclear that he would actually pursue policies that social conservatives would like better than the ones Trump would pursue. Further, would McMullin’s immigration policy be a continuation of the Bush years? In that case it seems likely to lead to further backlash even if he somehow became president as the result the House of Representatives selecting him in the aftermath of an electoral college deadlock. If you liked the Iraq War but wish George W. Bush had been more socially liberal, voting McMullin seems like a good way to signal your views; if that combination of positions does not describe you, you are likely going to send a clearer signal by voting for a different third party candidate.

Of course, for voters who believe McMullin is superior to Trump, even if they prefer the Libertarian and Constitution Party candidates to McMullin, there could still be a reason to vote for McMullin—namely, living in Utah. Thanks to McMullin’s high polling numbers in Utah, someone attempting to send the election to the House of Representatives has reason to pick him as the highest polling Trump alternative. But outside of Utah, a McMullin vote seems pointless for people who aren’t extremely hawkish on foreign policy.

So, despite the Constitution Party not managing to get presidential and vice presidential candidates with experience in elected office (and who have practically no chance of winning), I am writing in Darrell L. Castle and Scott N. Bradley as a way of signaling my reasons for opposing my more likely-to-get-elected options. I do hope Hillary loses Texas though.



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