Is Voting Third Party Wrong?

NOTE:  This is intended as a response to an article by T. N. Reider published at “The Conversation” entitled “Is the ‘lesser of two evils’ an ethical choice for voters?”  That article is well-written, and I recommend reading it.  All quotes come from there.


As I’ve discussed in other articles, despair is endemic in this country.  The presidential politics of this year underline this in a fashion seldom seen before, with the fiercest supporters of each candidate shouting loudly that their pick for president isn’t quite as bad as the only other choice.  People have stopped questioning the system, which seems to guarantee that the worst possible candidate always gains their party’s nomination.  Instead they like to shout at one another about how the other option is worse.

One thing that cannot be denied:  Americans hate both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, and they do so in record numbers.  We haven’t seen this level of dislike since Lincoln’s election split the country, and before that since Madison’s election nearly did the same in the War of 1812.  It’s historic, and it’s astounding.

And it’s hardly surprising that a lot of people in this country are considering third-party candidates like Gary Johnson or Jill Stein.

Rieder’s article presents an ethical argument which justifies choosing the “lesser of two evils”.  Let’s go over his arguments and see if they’re valid on their own, and more to the point, if they’re valid for you.


The Situation

“Pretend for a moment that you are a swing-state voter who agrees with the following four statements.

  1. A Donald Trump presidency would be a disaster.
  2. A Hillary Clinton presidency would be better.
  3. A third-party candidate would be better still.
  4. Neither third-party candidate has a serious chance of becoming president.”

These are the logical starting conditions, the premises used by Reider to formulate his conclusion, that voting for a third-party candidate is unethical.  He states that it is not his place to justify them, as it’s evident that some people do believe in them; there’s reason to that.  However, since here we’re examining his work, it’s certainly our place to examine the validity of his initial assumptions, and there is one glaring and egregious flaw.

In a neutral article written from an academic perspective and purporting to examine the ethics of a choice, it would be reasonable to expect neutrality in the expression of assumptions.  And yet, when he formulates his question, even when relating it to conservatives, he leaves things in this order: that Donald Trump is worse than Clinton, who in turn is not as good as a third-party candidate.

So let us correct Rieder’s error, thus:

  1. Choosing the other party’s candidate would be a disaster.
  2. Choosing my party’s candidate is not a good alternative.
  3. A third-party candidate would be better.

From these alone, the conclusion seems apparent:  If we cannot in good conscience endorse either major candidate, we have a moral obligation to vote for neither, but rather for someone who reflects our own views.

And yet we are told that this is self-indulgence; irresponsible, and perhaps unethical.  The difference must lie in that fourth assumption, that no third-party candidate has a reasonable chance of becoming president.

This too is patently untrue.  It is an insidious falsehood, one spread about by both major parties — and quite naturally, too; if we all believe it, those parties maintain control.*

Why It’s Not True

Every election cycle, the American people are given a choice, usually between Bad and Worse.  If all the people who stayed home voted for some third person, that third person would win — except in real life that never happens.  It hasn’t happened since Lincoln in 1860, when the vote was split four ways.  The smart money says it won’t happen this year either, because it hasn’t happened in a long long time.  Even Vegas says it won’t happen, and Vegas is careful with their money.

But even without an outright victory, there’s still an excellent chance for Gary Johnson to win the presidency, even if Jill Stein can’t.  This is because of that unique and glorious American institution, the Electoral College.  Consider the following:

  • Gary Johnson may quite possibly join the other two candidates on stage at the debates.  (And Jill Stein might get arrested again.)
  • If he does, he stands a good chance of scoring some electoral votes, whether in Utah, Maine’s Second District, or his home state of New Mexico.  Even if he doesn’t, there’s still a decent chance.
  • Given that Johnson’s support comes from both parties as well as Undecideds, it’s quite possible that he’ll gain votes without upsetting a close race between the other two candidates.
  • If the results are close enough that none of the three candidates manage an electoral majority, the election goes to Congress to decide.
  • Bearing in mind that it’s not the current Republican-dominated House that decides but instead the incoming Congress, and considering the composition of the state blocs that make the choice, it’s probable that either a compromise is reached or the House is unable to decide.
  • Since there are only three options for compromise, the only legal compromise candidate NOT Trump or Clinton is Gary Johnson.
  • If there is no compromise, the election passes to the Senate, which chooses between Vice Presidential candidates.  The Senate, being highly divided, is even more unlikely to be able to make a choice.
  • If the Senate cannot choose, the incoming Speaker of the House becomes president.
  • Knowing this, it’s likely that the House will prefer a compromise.
  • Another likely compromise scenario involving both houses of Congress has Libertarian VP candidate Bill Weld taking Vice President under Hillary Clinton.

The above situation, which is not terribly unlikely, gives us not one but two reasonably likely scenarios which lead to a third-party candidate taking office after the election.  Another potential result would be a prominent and respected leader from either party supplanting both Trump and Clinton as president.

But even if that doesn’t happen, voting third-party, whether Libertarian, Green, or Independence, nevertheless carries with it potential advantages.  The most powerful is this:  When a third party does well in an election cycle, it inevitably draws contributions to its candidates in other elections, both during that cycle and the next.  In the past, this has permitted several third-party candidates to be elected to seats in state legislatures, to governorships, and even to Congress.  Should this occur, it will force the major parties to behave more responsibly than in the past, lest they permanently cede power to the new kid on the block — as happened with Bernie Sanders a long time ago.

The Bottom Line

Given the above, a reasonable person is forced to conclude that the original assumptions used to provide Rieder’s conclusion are flawed at best, and possibly deliberate attempts to mislead the reader.  The following are neutral in tone, and as such are preferable:

  1. Choosing the other party’s candidate would be a disaster.
  2. Choosing my party’s candidate is not a good alternative.
  3. A third-party candidate would be better.
  4. At least one third-party candidate has the chance to vastly impact the results of the national election.

We have been fed the idea that we can only choose between the leading two candidates; this is palpably untrue.  What’s more, we’ve been encouraged to accept the notion that we must vote for someone who will win so that our vote isn’t somehow wasted.  This last is the most insidious lie; nothing could be a greater waste of a vote than to cast one for a candidate one doesn’t approve of, doesn’t trust, doesn’t like, and doesn’t want as president.

If we have the option to choose someone who reflects our views, we are likewise obligated to cast our vote for them.  If instead we simply don’t vote, our objection is lost in the flood of apathy that surrounds every election.  If we fail to vote as we feel is right, we instead endorse the despair that keeps the American voter home each November.

That makes us the problem, and when the inevitable consequences of President Trump or President Clinton arise, we’ll be unable to point to them as the only bad guy.  The person responsible will be you.

So if you honestly believe that Hillary Clinton would be the best possible candidate of all the ones we might elect, you should vote for her.

If you believe that Donald Trump would make an excellent president, you should vote for him.  Absolutely.  No question.

But if you have your doubts about them, why not consider Gary Johnson?  Why not consider Jill Stein?  Take some time; look them over.  I think you’ll be glad you did.


*NOTEWait — are you implying that political parties lie to us?  You betcha.  Always.  On every subject.  There may exist individual politicians who don’t lie, but they’re rare.  Political organizations lie, cheat, mislead, defraud, spin, and otherwise manipulate the electorate in any way they can in order to win elections.  The Republicans have Fox News; the Democrats have Chicago’s political machine and Wasserman Schulz — and those are just the examples everybody knows.  Including you.

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