The Real Problem with Voting Third Party

by Mitchell Croom

There is no doubt that many readers of this article will already have encountered other pieces that either extol the moral virtue of refusing to participate in the two-party system, or denounce third party votes as an electoral “waste.” As is often the case with Internet-led debates, both sides of this rift ignore the truth at the heart of the other side. The two-party system does create questionable outcomes, and voting your conscience is always justified. However, it remains an electoral certainty that one of the two major parties will win the White House, and so voting for anyone else will be something of a “protest” exercise. None of these points, however, get at the meat of the issue.

Voting third party is not a fruitful use of your ballot, but not because of the spoiler effect. People have a civic duty to choose the candidate with whom they most align. If a third party candidate represents your interests well, they should receive your vote, period. Here’s the thing: you really shouldn’t agree with them. Not because of any “strategic” purpose; simply because their positions are immature, poorly thought-out, and harmful to the country.

It’s natural to overlook the ignorance of third party policies. The media rarely, if ever, covers them or their leaders. People’s default assumptions about them go unchallenged and these parties become amusing, innocent sideshow attractions, instead of critically-examined political entities. So let’s examine them.

The Libertarians

The Libertarian Party is by far the largest, best-organized and most energetic third party in the United States. They claim to stand on a platform of “social liberalism and fiscal conservatism,” which appeals to many voters who would prefer to see their own taxes lowered, but also support (or don’t care about) social issues like gay marriage or abortion. Yet these voters, who are by and large moderates, would be severely displeased if Libertarians ever gained control of the US government. The “Libs” are not fiscal conservatives; they are fiscal extremists. Their platform states,

“We call for the repeal of the income tax, the abolishment of the Internal Revenue Service and all federal programs and services not required under the U.S. Constitution.”

Let’s briefly note that “abolishing” the IRS is a nonsensical appeal to the emotions of people who hate the government. As the government’s revenue-collector, the IRS is indispensable. Abolishing the IRS would simply mean establishing a replacement organization to perform the same function, but with a different name (wasting tax dollars in the process). But more importantly, the federal income tax constitutes 1.5 trillion dollars in revenue per year. The entire federal budget is $3.8 trillion. If we eliminated all discretionary spending – shutting down the entire US military, ending all education grants to state and local governments, ending all federal housing assistance, closing the entire Department of State (including every single US embassy and consulate around the globe), cutting all environmental protection efforts, completely deregulating nuclear power plants, defunding NASA completely, firing everyone at the NHTSA, the FAA, the FCC, the TSA, the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, the CIA, the staff who work in the White House and Congress, and much, much more – it would still only cut $1.1 trillion.

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The Libertarians’ answer to this is that they won’t go after discretionary spending first; they’ll cut what’s known as “mandatory spending,” which constitutes our biggest welfare programs: Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and TANF (food stamps). Here, they have a problem. You might think it’s that a 1.5 trillion dollar cut to Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and TANF would create millions of newly poor seniors who can’t afford to pay for housing or get healthcare when they fall ill (which happens fairly frequently to older people). You might also think that it’s the millions of currently-poor Americans who now won’t be able to afford the most basic healthcare, flooding emergency rooms, skipping out on their unpayable bills, occupying doctors’ time without any compensation, and increasing wait times and costs for everyone. And you might think it’s the borderline-inhumanity of denying hungry children access to food. But it isn’t.

Their problem is that income taxes don’t pay for welfare. Payroll taxes do. And the Libertarians have already pledged to end all payroll taxes, saying “we oppose any legal requirements forcing employers to serve as tax collectors,” which is what payroll taxes are.

So they’ve already committed to ending all mandatory spending (or at least the payroll taxes that pay for it), and all discretionary spending (or at least the income taxes that pay for it). The only taxes they don’t explicitly denounce are excise taxes and duties on imports and exports, which account for only $291 billion, only 7.7% of the total budget. How well do you think our government would function at one-thirteenth of current funding? The Libertarians think, “just fine.” Either that, or they have yet to realize the lunacy of the spending cuts they propose.

Cutting taxes down to 7.7% of current funding means you can fund nothing but the interest on the national debt. No military, no welfare, no transportation projects, no student loans, no food stamps, no NASA or FBI or CIA or Federal Reserve or Smithsonian. Nothing.

The next time you see Gary Johnson’s genial face on the Internet, remind yourself that he’s the standard-bearer for a party that would deny basic services to hundreds of millions of Americans, who would fund nothing but the “minimum payment due” on the nation’s credit card bill, and who sees nothing wrong with that.

The Greens

The Green Party is taken far less seriously than the Libertarians, not only by the public, but apparently by their own members. Whereas the Libs try their best (with questionable results) to fill ballots with candidates for every office from the White House to the local school board, the Greens rarely run outside of presidential elections. They spend four months every four years proclaiming that the time for “revolution” has come, running some candidate who sounds like a less-likeable Lorax, and as soon as they lose every single state, go home for another 44 months. That is not “revolution,” and I would imagine honest-to-God revolutionaries don’t appreciate their misappropriation of that term.

Their platform, which at press time has not yet been updated online for the 2016 election cycle, reads like a far left pipe-dream (which I say as a lefty myself), ignorant of reality or political plausibility. It advocates total US nuclear disarmament, without accompanying disarmament of our fellow nuclear powers, something no first-year student of international security would consider for a moment. Mutually assured destruction has kept the nuclear peace for 70 years, and disarmament would be the most destabilizing and dangerous event to happen on the nuclear stage since the Cuban Missile Crisis. Their platform also asks for an unparalleled commitment to environmental protection that would seriously harm the US economy, is not supported by the electorate, and would be opposed to the death by congressional Republicans. It denounces the use of fossil fuels to produce energy, while also condemning nuclear power, the only current feasible alternative. It opposes man-made pesticides (apparently unaware of the crops, livelihoods, and even lives that would be destroyed) and seeks to ban the use of genetically-modified organisms (GMOs), a pseudo-scientific and baseless scare tactic of the far left that has gained a regrettable amount of traction in the center. Their platform is, in a word, unrealistic.

Their current standard-bearer herself holds some views even more out of step with the country. Jill Stein, MD, recently untangled herself from an affair springing from her apparent refusal to admit that vaccines do not cause autism. When asked if she believed in that nonexistent connection, she repeatedly pivoted to bashing “big pharma,” leaving listeners wondering if she was riding the Jenny McCarthy anti-scientific bandwagon. Now, after being widely criticized, she claims that she has always believed in the efficacy of vaccines. But after issuing that curt affirmation, she still pivots to big pharma’s stranglehold on the American health services, and how she understands that people don’t trust such a corporatized system. I, too, believe that the government should not take such a laissez-faire approach to an inherently inelastic market like healthcare; but if asked whether vaccines cause autism, the answer is simply “No.” Making any other excuses or allowances for that most harmful belief is a betrayal of both science and medicine, two things that Doctor Stein should have more faith in. Most recently, she also expressed concerns that schoolkids’ brains could become damaged from exposure to Wi-Fi signals, demonstrating a fundamental lack of knowledge of what Wi-Fi is or what it could ever do to a human brain.

I have a great deal of personal sympathy for the Greens. They are fundamentally a party of liberals who are dissatisfied with a piecemeal approach to civil rights, the environment, or foreign policy. They want a transformation of American government, and they want it now. But Max Weber was right when he said that “politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards.” Progress is not won by being the most correct (not to imply that the Greens are), or by being the highest-minded, or even by being the loudest (though that will get you decently far). You must convince the people, that “average voter” whom Churchill hated, in order to make your revolution last.

The Green Party is fundamentally disinterested in educating the public, convincing moderates, or compromising in order to achieve progress. To their credit, at least they don’t seem mystified when they lose.

All Voting Is Strategic Voting

The preceding paragraphs are meant to disillusion anyone who might think that any third party in America is some noble enterprise that simply can’t convince the “sheeple.” If either the Libertarians or the Greens found themselves in control of the US government, they would implement policies that would fundamentally harm the United States in myriad ways. But upon reading my arguments, a third party voter might still respond that either Stein or Johnson is “better than the alternative” in this election. Which is where the wheels really come off the wagon.

At the top of the article, I said that the spoiler effect is not a sufficient reason to vote for a major party candidate. And that’s true. If you believe in what the Libs or Greens are selling, then you should vote for them, period. But if you don’t really adhere to their platforms, if what I’ve written above troubles you, if you can admit that you’re not in love with Stein or Johnson either, then please do not vote for them. At the point that Stein or Johnson is no longer your ideal candidate, then you are engaging in strategic voting. You are asking the same question that hundreds of millions of Americans are asking: “How can I put my vote to its best use?” And without a candidate to inspire you above all others, as both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump have done for many, you are forced into making strategic considerations. You are forced into picking the lesser of evils.

At that point, you should choose a major party candidate. Because if you’re not willing to give your all and lose for a cause that’s greater than any one election, if you don’t truly believe in these candidates and their flawed platforms, then the best use of your vote is to support the candidate that’s closest to your views who actually has a shot at winning. Otherwise, you become a revolutionary without a cause, lending your vote and voice to candidates you don’t really support, in protest against other candidates you don’t really support. Always voting for a major party candidate may be cynical, but voting for a third party you don’t actually agree with is the most cynical move of all. Not only do you vote against common sense and responsible policy, but you tacitly admit that your vote will not matter, since if it did, you would never cast it for that candidate.

Sometimes, the most principled action is doing your best to help others achieve the best outcome, even when that task is unpleasant. Please, read all the parties’ platforms, critically evaluate every candidate, and go vote your conscience on November 8.

Mitch Croom is a joint BA/MPP student at the College of William & Mary, where he studies international security, American politics, and civil rights. He is the current Senior Research Fellow at the Project on International Peace and Security, the only undergraduate think tank in the world. Also at W&M, he serves as Editor-in-Chief of the Monitor Journal of International Studies, the Chair of Student Life in the William & Mary Student Assembly, and the President of the Graduate Policy Association.

The views expressed in this article are those of the writer, The Contemporary takes no position on matters of policy or opinion.

The picture is a CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.


6 thoughts on “The Real Problem with Voting Third Party

  1. Pub Goff says:

    As we come up on the 2020 general election, it seems to me that strategic voting is necessary. At this point, I’m not concerned with the Green or Libertarian platforms, or the quality of their Presidential candidates. Nor am I all that concerned with moral arguments about how one should vote. I’m concerned with getting President Bullshitter out, AND shocking the duopoly at the same time. There is a way to do that, and it includes Third Party voting. In safe Blue or Red states, the highly dissatisfied (Left or Center) voter should vote Green rather than Biden. And staunch Progressives should try to get non-voters to do the same. That way we might be able to get Greens up to 5% or greater, which puts them on the radar. It might qualify them for additional federal matching funds as well.
    In swing states, well, I’d rather Biden (or whoever the Dem nominee is) win than anyone else. Because better them than Trump. Some Progressives will disagree. But I think a good case can be made that nationwide strategic voting will accomplish their goals better than throwing the election to Trump. We’ve got to bust this myth of the “wasted vote.”

  2. Daniel says:

    The meat and potatoes of this piece can be neatly reduced to the following:

    1) If you are not gung-ho about a candidate, don’t vote for them.
    2) Instead, follow the lead of the majorities and vote for a major candidate, even if you find them to be repulsive.

    This logic is by necessity, incredibly circular. Don’t vote for a candidate that you dont fully agree with, unless others like them. If this were the case, then all people would end up voting randomly. I will admit, I did not read your characterizations on Libertarians and Greens because I dont like reading opponents of a party’s characterizations. It is almost always wrong or lacking clarity. But I did read the first bits and the last bits.

    By your logic, a vote is wasted unless it goes to the winner, which is technically correct! It is the best kind of correct. But you also seem to indicate that voting for the runner up, a loser, is not a wasted vote. However, I dont buy that. There is no distinction in a winner take all election between second place and 50th place. They are both equally losers once the results are in.

    Also, by characterizing third parties as “[lacking]common sense and responsible policy” you do them an injustice. Third parties generally don’t get to make policy choices because they lack power and because of this, neither they nor you know if their policies would be irresponsible or not. I would invite you extend more courtesy to those you disagree with in the future. The fundamental flaw in American politics is the unwillingness of politicians and politicos to grant their opponents any measure of good will or good faith in their positions. Everything is perceived to be zero sum. This is not the case. Compromise is not a bad thing. Politics should not be about punishing the other side and rejecting everything they stand for whenever possible. To do that is the easiest way to unravel civil society and peaceful co-existence between political opponents who for better or worse, need to live with each other.

    Enough pedantic soapboxing. You can thank Leah for linking me to this.



    1. Mitch Croom says:

      I would invite you to actually read the article before posting comments.

      The article can’t be summarized in your two points, I never said to vote for the likely winner, and I don’t know what a platform is if not a statement of policies the party seeks to enact.

      I can make no further rebuttal besides pointing out that I wrote almost nothing that you claim I did. Leah is a delight.

      1. Daniel says:

        Your essay can and was summarized in two points. Or, more accurately, you can cut it down to the first two paragraphs and the last three and still have a fully cohesive and arguably, more impartial, more elegant argument. Less is more and all that.

        But to be fair to you, I went back and read your characterizations of the Greens and Libertarians. They contributed what I thought they would, which was a left wing surface analysis of a party platform, in a word, little. They were not persuasive and did not really add a whole lot to the core of your essay because, as you admitted, you have lefty colored glasses on and cant be unbiased against them, which is a skill most people will never learn anyways. I won’t address your characterizations of the parties further because they are not really essential to your central point which is that a vote for an unpopular candidate is a poor use of your vote. “the best use of your vote is to support the candidate that’s closest to your views who actually has a shot at winning”. By definition, all votes cast for losers in elections are wasted votes, that is, they had no actual effect on the result of the election. Someone who “has a shot” is simply someone who is polling within a relatively close margin to a plurality or majority. However, the only way for people to poll that way is for voters who are principled and courageous to actually admit that they will vote for them and then come election time, actually vote for that candidate.

        In the US, the only reason third parties are not more popular in any sense is because of arguments like yours that are designed to shame people into switching their votes for the larger parties. It inhibits progress really when you think about it by trying to coerce people who might feel strongly about say, fiscal issues or environmental issues to reject their political values and switch to a “lesser evil”.

        Platforms are not pre-laws. They do not spell out the particulars of law or rule making. Instead they describe the furthest goals desired without regard to compromise, working with other parties, or hashing out details. They are a laundry list of wishful thinking designed to indicate to the voter the general direction that a party or person wishes to direct the legal system towards. This can be a s large as free healthcare for all on the national level, or cheap vending machines at the high school level. Instead what you end up with is Obamacare and the gym teacher with a box of candy for $1 in the cafeteria at lunch. You cant get what you want. Thats probably the first rule of politics.

        The only way the American system of toxic politics will change is if people arent told that they are wasting their vote when they choose to align with a more “fringe” party. Otherwise, we can expect another 8 years of dead gridlock and come on, do you really want that?

      2. Mitch Croom says:

        I’m sorry that you interpreted this article as a call to follow some electoral majority. It was not intended as such. I tried at several points to explicitly call for voters to really think about the policies they’re voting for. The whole premise of the piece – the real problem with third parties – is that the Green and Libertarian Parties have irresponsible policies, as stated in their platforms. I rejected outright the idea of betraying your conscience if you actually believe in a party, including the Greens or Libertarians (though I also told you why you shouldn’t believe in them).

        It seems the rest of your comment is inspired more by animus than analysis. You dismiss my points as “biased” without explaining how they go wrong, declare yourself some kind of unbiased arbiter (when no such thing exists), and so on. But the only thing that really bothers me is your assertion that my article said voting for an unpopular candidate is unwise. It’s only unwise if you believe the third parties are severely flawed (as I do), and you are therefore choosing the lesser of evils, but now between four parties instead of two. If you believe in the Green or Libertarian platforms, please vote for them. I mean that sincerely. I merely contend that those platforms are not worth supporting, and that without a decent alternative to the two major parties, it is more prudent to vote Blue or Red. But if you disagree with my analysis of their platforms, that logic does not apply.

        Platforms are by their nature general, you’re right. But certain ones are more general than others. The Libertarian platform is quite short, and I may be reading more specificity into it than they intended. That’s a fair criticism, though I did take pains to quote from it directly and without distortion. The Green platform, however, is many pages long and goes into considerable detail. It becomes a list of desired policies, written with great specificity. I believe it approaches something like the “pre-laws” you describe. And neither of the major party platforms is intended as an unachievable wish list. If elected to a unified government, both parties would attempt to implement as much of their own platform as they could. They would surely fall short, and would be open to compromise, but without political opposition, they would enact that document into law. Perhaps the third party platforms are particularly wishful thinking, designed more to spur discussion than create policy, and in treating them like major party platforms, I may have over-interpreted them. I want to thank you for that critique; I think it positively contributes to this discourse. I had not thought of it that way before.

        I could write another whole article (and engage in another whole comment-section discussion) about the source of the toxicity in American politics. I don’t imagine you’ll be surprised to see that I blame certain elements in the Republican Party for trying to delegitimize their opposition and dragging down the level of rhetoric in this country as a result. I feel somewhat vindicated by recent electoral events, but I recognize that this is a complex situation, and simply blaming Republicans is not a sufficient answer.

        I’m not trying to end this discussion, but I do want to thank you for taking the time to engage with me here. I find this debate very engaging and informative. I’m glad Leah brought us together.

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