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On Good and Bad Arguments Against Third-Party Voting

In a recent op-ed piece for the New York Times, Charles M. Blow adds his voice to a familiar election-year chorus.  Addressing those people – young people, in particular – who find both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton unpalatable, he warns that voting for a third-party presidential candidate[1] “isn’t principled.  It’s dumb, and childish, and self-immolating.  I know you’re young, but grow up!”

A whole host of columnists have recently argued the same thing in more or less blunt terms: anyone who chooses to vote third-party in the 2016 presidential election is some combination of ill-informed, irrational, or immoral.  And since people between 18 and 29 years old are more likely to support a third-party candidate than any other age group, the columnists have made this demographic their primary target.  The time for young and foolish idealism is over, they say; the stakes are far too high.  Haven’t you millennials already done enough to ruin the world?[2]

Now, I don’t think such criticisms are entirely unfounded.  I grant that it is bad to vote in an ill-informed, irrational, or immoral way.  And I grant that many people my age do vote in such a way, although we certainly don’t have a monopoly on thoughtlessness and vice.  My problem with all of this is the idea that voting third-party is an inherently stupid or blameworthy choice, and so something a mature citizen wouldn’t do.

I don’t want to offer a full defense of voting for a third-party candidate.  Nor do I want to examine the merits of candidates like Gary Johnson, Jill Stein, Evan McMullin, John “Green” Ferguson, or anyone else.[3]  My focus is a little narrower: I’m going to take a close look at some of the most common arguments against voting third-party in this election.  Several of them are completely unpersuasive, and even the best one isn’t obviously sound.  So they simply can’t support the idea that young third-party voters are all ill-informed, irrational, or immoral.  Just as importantly, however, I think that the final argument I consider is one that everyone pondering a third-party vote should take seriously.

I’m far from the only person making the points you’ll find below, but given the sheer volume of people lambasting third-party voters, it won’t hurt to repeat them.

By Carolmooredc - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

By Carolmooredc - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Three Bad Arguments

Let’s get some things out of the way right off the bat.  Not all millennials unreflectively believe that Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are equally bad options; many recognize one as the lesser of two evils.  (Trump is obviously worse, in my humble opinion, though nothing I’ll argue below depends on this.)  Not all millennials are woefully uneducated about candidates’ policy proposals.  And not all millennials believe that one of the candidates is truly perfect, the knight in shining armor who will save America.  So, for the realistic, thoughtful, educated millennial, the question is this: would it be wrong for me to vote third-party instead of voting for the lesser of two evils?

Yes, because a third-party vote is just a vote for the other candidate.  And you don’t want to support the greater of two evils!

Everyone has heard this one.  Even Barack Obama used it the other day: “If you vote for a third-party candidate who’s got no chance to win, that’s a vote for Trump.”  The problem, of course, is that it’s straightforwardly false.  Only a vote for Trump is a vote for Trump.  It’s certainly true that a third-party vote doesn’t support Clinton by adding to her vote total; but we can’t infer from this that it’s a vote for Trump.  After all, a third-party vote doesn’t support Trump either, so by parity of (bad) reasoning we should conclude that it’s a vote for Clinton too.  Poor third-party voters – they think they’re bucking the establishment, when in fact they’re voting for both establishment candidates at once!

More charitably, Obama probably meant something like “a third-party vote does less to decrease the likelihood of a Trump presidency than a vote for Clinton.”  This is true, at least in some situations.  And this brings up a deeper issue: am I obligated to vote in such a way that I minimize the likelihood of the worst-case scenario?  That’s a good question - we’ll get there.   But we can all agree that it’s unhelpful, at best, to say things like “a third-party vote is a vote for [insert least favorite candidate].”

Well, I hate to break it to you, but your preferred third-party candidate has no shot at winning. Either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump will be elected in November – period.  So don’t waste your vote by supporting someone with zero chance to become president.

I’ll set aside the fact that some third-party candidates do have a non-zero chance to become president.  Let’s focus, instead, on this notion that you shouldn’t waste your vote.

According to the standard definition, a wasted vote is one that has no impact on the final outcome of the election.  There are two ways in which a vote could be wasted: it could be cast for a candidate who does not win; or it could be cast for the winning candidate but do nothing to contribute to that candidate’s victory.   In California, which is sure to go to Clinton this November, any vote cast for Donald Trump or a third-party candidate will be wasted, strictly speaking.  So too, however, will be a large percentage of the votes for Clinton, those over and above what she needed to surpass Trump’s total.  And in some states, every vote will be wasted, strictly speaking.  If Alabama is a Trump state, but Clinton wins, then every single vote cast in the state of Alabama will have been either a vote for a losing candidate or a vote that didn’t help Clinton win.  So on this reading of what it means to waste your vote, it doesn’t do much good telling a voter in Alabama not to waste hers.

Perhaps the argument is supposed to go something like this: the reason to vote is to influence the outcome of the election; voting for a doomed third-party candidate can’t possibly influence the outcome of the election, but voting for an establishment candidate can; so, it’s irrational to vote for a third-party candidate.  One obvious problem with this argument is that, as we’ve seen, my voting for an establishment candidate in a state like Alabama wouldn’t influence the election’s outcome any more than voting for a third-party candidate.  In addition, as the philosopher Jason Brennan points out,

The most optimistic estimate in the literature claims that in a presidential election, an American voter could have as high as a 1 in 10 million chance of breaking a tie, but only if that voter lives in one of three or four “swing states,” and only if she votes for a major-party candidate (Edlin, Gelman, and Kaplan 2007). Thus, on both of these popular models, for most voters in most elections, voting for the purpose of trying to change the outcome is irrational.[4] The expected costs exceed the expected benefits by many orders of magnitude.

That’s not the only reason people offer for voting establishment, however.  According to a different line of thinking, the purpose of your vote is to change the winner’s mandate.  You can change that mandate in one of two ways: voting for the eventual winner in order to make it easier for them implement big policy changes, or voting for their opponent in order to put the winner on thin ice and reduce their impact once in office.[5]  So, for example, David Marcus argues that since voting third party will help Clinton win in a landslide, conservatives in blue states like New York should hold their noses and vote Trump, if only to “usher Hillary Clinton into office with a poor showing in which she barely beat the worst candidate in American history.” So, an alternative argument: the reason to vote is to change the winner’s mandate; an establishment vote accomplishes this far more than a third-party vote; so, it’s irrational to vote for a third-party candidate.

There is a serious problem here too, however.  Once again, I can’t say it better than Jason Brennan already has: “Political scientists have done extensive empirical work trying to test whether electoral mandates exist, and they now roundly reject the mandate hypothesis (Dahl 1990b; Noel 2010). A winning candidate’s ability to get things done is generally not affected by how small or large of a margin she wins by.” If this is right, then we can’t argue on mandate-related grounds that an establishment vote is any less wasted than a third-party vote.  (Also, I should add that even if electoral mandates did exist, Marcus almost certainly oversells the extent to which voting establishment changes the mandate more than voting third-party.)

To conclude this section, it’s worth tackling the general suggestion that it’s foolish to vote for someone with no chance to become president.  I might think that the purpose of voting is to express support for a particular candidate or party.  I might want to contribute to that party’s getting new opportunities and privileges in my state.  Or I might simply think that voting responsibly requires voting for the best candidate, and that the best candidate is on neither the Republican nor the Democratic ticket.  On any of these views, it can be perfectly sensible to vote for a third-party candidate even if it’s statistically improbable that the candidate will win.  On any of these views, there’s an important sense in which a third-party vote is not a wasted vote.

I applaud the general idea of third parties, and I encourage you to express support for the one you like best – but in other ways.  The presidential election is not the place to do it.  Worry about local elections, and make your impact felt there – local elections matter more, anyways.

This kind of line is worth mentioning if only because it’s repeated ad nauseam.  Yes, local elections are in some ways more important than national ones, and yes, people who truly believe in a third party’s platform should be sure to support that party in local elections.   But if you truly believe in a third party’s platform, why not express your support for that platform on a national level too?  The “only vote local” objection isn’t a real objection at all, unless it’s paired with a compelling reason not to vote third party at the national level in particular.  So let’s close by considering the most compelling such reason.


One Better Argument

Time to get serious, then.  Surely you’ll grant this: citizens have some sort of duty to the country as a whole –a duty to promote the common good, or a Good Samaritan duty to prevent the country from harm – in cases where there’s no significant cost to doing so.  Voting responsibly is a way of discharging such a duty, and there’s no significant cost to voting responsibly.  So, citizens have a duty to vote responsibly in order to promote the common good, or to prevent the country from harm.  This means that we should vote in such a way that we prevent the worse of the two evils from becoming president.  The best way to ensure that happens is to vote for the lesser of the two evils – like it or not – since that candidate has a far easier path to victory than any third-party candidate.  So, you should vote for the lesser of two evils, and not-third party.  This is especially important when the worse of the two evils is really, really, profoundly evil.

At long last, we’ve found something worth taking seriously.  On the most charitable reading of many of the columnists I’ve mentioned, this is their real point – and if I might offer some friendly advice, it would be better for them not to disguise it with nonsense about wasted votes, votes for the other guy, laments about the folly of youth, and so on.

To speak personally: I feel the weight of the argument, since I truly do believe that a Trump presidency would be an unprecedented disaster, and (you’ll be relieved to hear) I’m all for promoting the common good whenever possible.  I don’t live in a swing state, but what if I did?  Even granting that my individual vote carries almost no weight, it is nevertheless true that in a swing state, my voting third-party would do less to prevent a Trump victory than my voting for Clinton would.  So, in that hypothetical, would I have a moral obligation to vote for Clinton?

There are at least two important things to consider here, it seems to me.  First, is it true that voting for the lesser of two evils promotes the common good more than voting third-party?  Second, even if it is true, are the costs of voting for the lesser of two evils too high in this case?  Let’s take these in turn.

Voting for the lesser of two evils certainly promotes the common good insofar as it prevents the greater of two evils.  It also detracts from the common good, however, insofar as it helps to bring about that lesser evil - it’s still an evil, after all.  Voting third-party, on the other hand, does detract from the common good insofar as it fails to prevent the greater evil; but it’s reasonable to think it could promote the common good as well, even if the third-party candidate fails to win.  Both options are mixed.  Which one promotes the common good more, all things considered, will depend on a number of things, including the actual consequences of voting third-party in your state, how much better the third-party candidate is than the two establishment candidates, and how much worse one establishment candidate is from the other.   This last point is particularly important.  If you think, for example, that Trump is astronomically worse than Clinton, it’s unlikely that the common good will be promoted more by your voting for a third-party candidate – no matter how virtuous she is – than by voting for Clinton.  If you think that there’s a much smaller gap between Trump and Clinton, however, things might be different.

Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that Trump is pretty much a walking heap of nuclear waste, and therefore that voting for Clinton will do more to promote the common good than voting third-party.  You might still believe that the costs of voting for Clinton are unacceptably high.  To take just one example, you might believe that it is categorically wrong to vote for anyone who advocates abortion.[6]  It’s not unreasonable to think that there are absolute moral prohibitions, after all.  The cost of violating an absolute moral prohibition is unacceptably high; so if promoting the common good requires doing so, you shouldn’t promote the common good.  The great Oxford philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe once criticized Truman’s decision to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which (Truman argued, at least) promoted the common good insofar as it saved hundreds of thousands of Japanese and Allied lives, by scoffing:

Come now: if you had to choose between boiling one baby and letting some frightful disaster befall a thousand people—or a million people, if a thousand is not enough—what would you do?  Are you going to strike an attitude and say “You may not do evil that good may come”? 

No one is accusing Clinton of boiling babies, but I’m sure you take the point.  And I certainly don’t want to insinuate that this is a one-sided thing; it’s also reasonable to think that there’s an absolute prohibition against supporting someone like Trump whose policies, speech, and behavior are unspeakably racist and sexist, just to name two of their unseemly qualities.  So if you think both Clinton and Trump endorse policies that should be categorically opposed, you might conclude that the costs of voting for either of them are simply too high.  If – if – you find a third-party candidate who doesn’t endorse any such policies, voting for that person is your only morally permissible option.

Perhaps you don’t think that it’s always wrong to vote for candidates who endorse morally abhorrent policies, though.  Should you then vote for the candidate who, though morally abhorrent, is the lesser evil?  Maybe you should, if the potential harm of voting third-party is unacceptably high.

Let’s take a step back and consider what Jason Brennan calls the Clean Hands Principle: “One should not participate in collectively harmful activities when the cost of refraining from such activities is low.”  Brennan’s example to motivate the principle involves a 100-person firing squad about to shoot an innocent child.  You can’t stop them no matter what you do.  Now, what if they ask whether you want to join them and fire the 101st shot?  There’s no cost to you if you don’t join them; they just want to see whether you’re interested.  Clearly, Brennan says, it would be morally wrong to join the firing squad, even though your shot won’t make a difference to the final outcome.

Brennan uses the Clean Hands Principle to argue that we shouldn’t vote in an irresponsible way in elections.  To vote irresponsibly is to participate in a collectively harmful activity, and is thus morally wrong, even if my individual vote doesn’t decide anything.  Instead, he says, voters should have good grounds for thinking that they are voting for policies or candidates that will promote the common good.”  So, one might think, the Clean Hands Principle supports voting for the lesser of two evils.  If it’s collectively harmful to vote third-party, given that it doesn’t prevent the greater of two evils from winning, then perhaps voting for the lesser evil comes at a low enough cost to justify doing so.

There’s a snag, though.  Those of us who have serious aversions to both Clinton and Trump think that both of them would, if elected, cause serious harm to the country (one more than the other).  So even a vote for the better of the two is, itself, participating in a collectively harmful activity.  And, of course, the same is true for a vote for the worse of the two. In a swing state, then, no one has clean hands.  At best, we can try to do what will dirty our hands the least.  Deciding which option that is, as should be clear by now, is far from straightforward.


Vote Your Conscience

Given all of the complications here, we should expect that even informed, rational, and moral voters who carefully and thoughtfully weigh their options will come to different conclusions about what to do.[7]  They have a profoundly difficult choice to make.  And those who choose to vote third-party, even if they are wrong to do so, are neither dumb nor childish.  Anyone who says otherwise is guilty of radical oversimplification.

Charles Blow, and others like him, will tell you that voting third-party is obviously wrong, and that doing so out of a sense that you should “vote your conscience” is woefully misguided.  I hope I’ve convinced you that matters are, at the very least, far from obvious.  As to voting one’s conscience: on a traditional understanding, following your conscience isn’t a matter of simply doing what you feel like, or of selfishly trying to maintain a sense of moral superiority, but of carefully and seriously attempting to form sound moral judgments about what to do.  In this election, how can we afford to do anything else?


[1] Mr. Blow focuses on Gary Johnson and Jill Stein in particular; I’ll use “third-party” broadly to include any candidate other than Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, including independents and write-ins.

[2] They’ve got to start blaming Generation Z for things eventually, right?

[3] I don’t need to tell you that Gary Johnson and Jill Stein aren’t perfect, since we’ve got John Oliver for that.  Once again, I’ll stress that I’m not arguing that you should vote for any candidate in particular, or in general that you should vote third-party; you could come to the conclusion that none of them are palatable either.  What you do in that case – that’s a more complicated conversation for another time.

[4] It’s worth pointing out that people often tend to oversell the weight an establishment vote has, and undersell the weight a third-party vote has.  For example, take the following line from Paul Richardson: “Very marginally indicating support for a third party candidate’s agenda is far less important than adding your weight to prevent President Trump.”  From the perspective of what it adds to a given party’s vote total, at least, a third-party vote “adds more weight” than an establishment one does.  (Oh, and in case you don’t pick it up from how often I cite him: Jason Brennan’s stuff is, in general, really good.  I highly recommend it.)

[5] Assuming that there is such a thing as a mandate (see below for doubts), notice that this line of reasoning won’t give someone who strongly dislikes both candidates’ policy proposals a reason to vote for the likely winner.  At best, it supports an uncomfortable protest vote for the greater of two evils, as Marcus advocates.

[6] Lest you think otherwise, though, there is no pro-life case for Donald Trump.  

[7] For Catholic readers, the section on “Making Moral Choices” here is pertinent.

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