About Spoilers and Wasted Votes

[E]veryone knows that the United States has a two-party system. Sure, there are other parties, but they can't possibly win, so to vote for a third-party candidate is to throw your vote away. Worse still, by not voting for one of the candidates who can win, you take a vote away from one of the legitimate candidates and potentially throw the election to the other one. The only practical thing to do, then, is to grit your teeth and vote for the lesser of the two evils, and try to make the best of a bad situation.

We hear this in every election and, superficially, it seems logical: Candidate A is bad, but Candidate B is worse. Most of the people who support the third-party candidate, Candidate X, would prefer A over B, so their votes for X take votes away from A. If enough people do this, they will split the vote opposed to B, ensuring B's victory. Simple.

In the 2000 presidential election, Al Gore and George W. Bush are the accepted candidates, bouncing up and down in the polls, making powerful and moving speeches in support of children and doing other typical politician things. Harry Browne is the Libertarian candidate, fairly well known on talk radio and on the Internet, while fighting an uphill battle to get noticed by the mainstream media. Conventional wisdom, when it notices Browne at all, assumes that he will take votes away from Bush, assuring Gore's victory. People who make this argument generally consider Gore to be worse than Bush, so it's clear that voters who support Browne are callous traitors who would give us four years of Al Gore when it is within their power to save us from this fate. If Gore is elected, it's all their fault and they've willfully sold the country down the river, the selfish bastards.

Let's pick apart this elaborate rationalization (for that's what it is) one point at a time:

That's quite a list. Let's examine each of these assumptions individually. I've made this case with the assumption that Harry Browne is the preferred candidate, but the arguments apply for any third-party candidate, and for any lesser-of-two-evils. Plug in your favorites.

Ultimately, it's pointless to try to affect the outcome of an election by playing a bad candidate against a worse one. Your vote simply doesn't have that kind of effect. Even if it did, you would still end up with someone you didn't want.

Voting is a way of conveying information. A vote for a candidate announces that you prefer that candidate and support his positions. If you vote for one candidate merely to keep another one out of office, you're doing just as much for that candidate as his most enthusiastic supporter. A vote is a vote. By associating yourself with a lesser-of-two-evils, your vote gets lost in the noise. How can anyone possibly know what you want? Even if the candidates wanted to accomodate you, there's nothing in your vote that makes your views clear. Bush would have to figure out how many of his votes came from would-be Libertarians supporting free trade, and how many from would-be Buchanan supporters who support protectionist trade legislation. And then what would he do?

If you vote for the lesser of two evils, you ensure that what you consider evil will continue to win. It's easy to become desperate, to think that the best strategy is to get rid of the worse evil before trying to make things better. But by supporting a particular type of candidate, you create an incentive for similar candidates. If the major parties are successful doing what they've been doing, why on earth would they change? They have a winning strategy. There are always plenty more candidates waiting in line who are just as bad as the one you worked so hard to get rid of. And millions of other people are voting for the candidate you oppose because they consider him to be the lesser of two evils. And it's exactly the same in every election. Even when you succeed, things continue to get worse. And you don't always succeed.

If you want something, you have to let people know it. This is really the only reason to vote: to express what you believe. Voting against a candidate is not a belief, it's the lack of a belief. You can tell people what you don't want by simply staying home. It's rare enough to find a candidate you can honestly support. When you do, vote for him. Even if he doesn't win, you will have helped create a common bond -- and a constituency -- among people who aren't satisfied with the quadrennial Nuremberg rallies of the major parties. At the very least, you'll know that other people are on your side, and you may be taking the first steps toward real reform.

Seems to me that's worth it.

Michael Wells
September, 2000
Version 2.0

More Thoughts on 3rd Parties


from  http://www.solarbenite.com/external/writings/waste.html   10-02-2000