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Why voting for a third party is not a wasted vote

Updated on March 5, 2011


For a country that prides itself on diversity and freedom of choice, the United States falls short in the political choices it offers us each election. We supposedly have only two legitimate choices: Vote democratic or vote republican. If you cast your vote for a third party candidate, you are “wasting” your vote, we are told, because those candidates have no chance of winning. This is a sad state of affairs when voting, one of the most fundamental rights we have, is reduced to only voting for those who you think will win, rather than candidates you agree with the most and who you think is best for the job. We shouldn’t be reduced to voting for the “lesser of two evils.”

A frequent criticism of third parties is that they are not wanted. If Americans truly wanted a third option, we would have one by now, or that the reason Americans don’t already vote third party is because they don’t believe in having more than two parties. These assumptions are false. A September 2010 Gallup poll found that 58 % of the American people think a third party is needed because democrats and republicans do a bad job at representing the American people. Only 35% believed a third party isn’t needed.

At first glance, these results may seem paradoxical. If Americans want a third party, then why don’t they vote third party now? But the answer is that they don’t because they don’t know enough about them and because they are viewed as not having a chance of winning. If third parties gained more media exposure, they would receive more votes. Third parties also face restrictive ballot access laws that makes it very difficult for them to achieve ballot access in many states.

Media exposure

Third party candidates receive very little media exposure. Many newspaper editors and journalists claim that they don’t cover third party candidates because they have no chance of winning and because we have a two-party system, not a multi-party system. Yet media exposure is critical to winning elections. Most voters don’t have that much factual knowledge about politics and tend to vote based on presidential debates, yet third party candidates are routinely left out of the debates.

The Commission on Presidential Debates, which began hosting the televised debates in 1988, has excluded third party candidates from presidential debates except for 1992, when Ross Perot was included. The CPD didn’t allow Perot to participate in the 1996 debate despite receiving 19% of the vote in the previous election.

In 1999, Commission vice chairman Newton Minow recommended a “15-percent threshold” rule - which was adopted as official policy the next year - to determine whether a candidate was eligible to participate in the presidential debates: A candidate must have at least 15% of support from the public in five different national opinion polls before each debate. This is a near impossible barrier for third party candidates to surmount. Without inclusion in the debates, the idea that any third party candidate could obtain that kind of support among the public without being exposed to them beforehand is ludicrous and self-fulfilling. Indeed, much of the criticism against third party candidates, whether from laws or from the public, have an undeniable self-fulfilling prophecy to them. If the CPD won’t let third parties participate in the debates until they receive a certain amount of support, yet being allowed into the debates is the only way to gain that amount of support, the whole thing becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Ballot Access

To qualify for ballot access, many third parties face difficult restrictions. It varies between states, but generally, third parties must submit petitions with a certain amount of signatures to state officials in order to be eligible for ballot access. The petitions have to be distributed within specific time periods that vary between different states. In California, the petitions can only be distributed from early June to early August, for example.

It also varies how many signatures a petition needs to qualify the candidate for ballot access. In Oklahoma, for example, a candidate must have the signatures of 5 % of the state’s registered voters. More than 100, 000 signatures were needed in California in 1980 to qualify. Without media exposure of their candidates, their party’s platform’s, and their policies, expecting third parties to gain that many signatures is an unrealistic expectation.

The Big Three

There are three main third parties in the United States that get the most exposure and are the most well-financed. I describe them in an opportunity to educate readers who may not be familiar with them, and convince them that voting for one of them is a good idea.

The Green Party

This party is a left wing party that supports single payer national health insurance and is against the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. For left wingers disappointed in President Obama’s policy choices in these areas - and they are in abundance - this party would be an ideal choice. 2008 green party presidential nominee Cynthia McKinney was on the ballot in 32 states and received 161,0000 votes, or 0.1 percent of the vote.


The Libertarian Party

This party is billed as “America’s largest third party,“ and indeed it is the most popular of the big three and receives the most ballot access. They are often described as fiscally conservative and socially liberal. Libertarians believe in complete individual freedom, economic rights and social rights. They also support a non-interventionist foreign policy and are in support of ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan without “victory.” For people who are concerned about government spending and the national debt, as well as the erosion of civil liberties and our wars overseas, this would be a good choice. During the 2008 election, the LP’s presidential nominee, Bob Barr received ballot access in a whopping 45 states and received 525,000 votes, or 0.4 percent of the vote.


The Constitution Party

This is a right wing party that appeals to “Paleo-conservatives” such as Pat Buchanan. The Constitution Party is pro-economic freedom, pro-traditional morality, and anti-war. They have a strong Christian tinge to their party that may turn off many non-Christians, but will appeal to a certain subset of the public. 2008 presidential nominee Chuck Baldwin had ballot access in 37 states and won 196,000 votes, or 0.15 percent of the vote.


As you can see, these parties have inconsistent ballot access from state to state, and thus, many people may not be able to vote their preferences even if they wanted to. But it’s worth noting that all three achieved ballot access in most states. We may not have a good system that truly allows a diversity of legitimate choices, but if enough people in a given state voted for one of these parties, it would wake up the establishment and maybe even produce real change in our system.

The “big tent” philosophy

Of course, many object to third party voting not only because third parties are fighting a losing battle, but because it would supposedly be better for advocates of different perspectives to work within the two major parties to produce change. This is known as the “big tent” philosophy, the idea that major parties are a hotbed for differing constituencies and perspectives to advocate for their causes while still agreeing on a few key values. Thus, anti-war greens who may be disappointed in Obama’s unwillingness to end the war in Afghanistan or Iraq should abandon the futile third party effort and work within the democratic party to create change.

Likewise, libertarians and constitutionalists should work within the Republican Party on their key issues to reduce the deficit, despite their disagreements with the official party platform about a strong national defense.

I admit that this approach may be more productive in the long run. However, it creates a false sense of unity. Libertarians, for example, may agree with Republicans on free market principles, but they have fundamental disagreements with them on matters of foreign policy and civil liberties. By working within the Republican Party, they may create the illusion of a big tent, but will still be hampered by an official party platform. And as it stands right now, the Republican Party is not very open to alternative perspectives within their ranks.

I think it is far more productive in a democracy to have a variety of perspectives, and competition between different ideas, not one in which two parties appear unified by an official party perspective but differ vastly within their ranks on certain issues. We need a true marketplace of ideas. And as long as there are only two parties, the alternative ideas will never be given recognition unless the party platform changes to recognize those ideas. But even then, it will leave other ideas and perspectives out in the cold. Voters will be forced to compromise their principles on certain issues just so the other party won’t win, rather than vote for the party that they agree with the most. The temptation to vote for the lesser of two evils is strong, but, as the cliché goes, you are still voting for evil.


The time for voting third party is now. Polls show that a majority of Americans distrust our two political parties and want a third option. With a huge national deficit, 9% percent unemployment, economic inequality, and two wars overseas that seem to have no clear end in sight, people should be voting third party in droves. As long as we continue to think that winning is more important than voting our principles, our two-party system will continue to shut out other voices and perspectives that badly need to be heard. If enough people voted third party, the majority parties would pay attention, and maybe even opt to change the system.


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    • johndnathan profile image

      John D Nathan 5 years ago from Dallas, Texas. USA

      Well done, Brad C.L. This is a very engaging article in support of third parties. I plan to vote for Jill Stein this year. I live in Texas so there's no threat of any "spoiler" candidate.

    • Brad C. L. profile image

      Brad C. L. 5 years ago

      Yes, I watched that debate last night too, Melis Ann. And NateB11, the game is rigged, but one big problem is that most voters are not particularly informed, and coupling that with the lack of exposure of third parties, people have no idea there are any other options, and don't care enough to do research about it. In that sense, I don't blame uninformed voters for sticking with one of the two major choices, since they don't know of any other options. But that's an argument for a more informed electorate, more exposure for third parties, and people actually caring enough to do research on these other options, because we know the establishment and the media is not going to help us out.

    • ESPeck1919 profile image

      ESPeck1919 5 years ago from Minneapolis, MN

      Voted up. Great topic and your points are phrased well.

    • NateB11 profile image

      Nathan Bernardo 5 years ago from California, United States of America

      I absolutely agree with you on this; and this Presidential election, for the first time, I voted for a third party candidate, via mail in ballot. The game is rigged, as you point out in your excellent exposition here. But the more aware a person is, the less one can continue to make the "safe" but wrong choice. I couldn't go for the dominant choice anymore. And, as you point out, if those who see the fallacy of the status quo game and voted according to truth and not fear, there would be a change; and it would help if the game was un-rigged.

    • Melis Ann profile image

      Melis Ann 5 years ago from Mom On A Health Hunt

      Thank you for this article Brad! Last night there was an online debate between Libertarian, Green, Constitution and Justice parties ~~ ~~ I am more interested in politics now that I feel that I am actually being spoken to by these third party politicians. It is time for a change and it really must start with all of voting for these other choices!

    • Brad C. L. profile image

      Brad C. L. 5 years ago

      Yeah, Ukiaharku, there are also polls that show a majority of americans want a competitive third party in the U.S. and younger people are especially likely to believe this, perhaps a hopeful sign. I personally think the libertarian party could do much better than many people think if they were given a fair shot at a general election (i.e. being allowed into the debates, ballot access). I think the libertarian party has gotten its act together by nominating Gary Johnson this year. He has executive experience (two-term governor of New Mexico), he is more moderate in his views than most hardcore libertarians, and he appeals to both conservatives and liberals in different ways (conservatives for his fiscal views, liberals for his civil liberties views). I'll be voting for him in November. People should vote for who they think is the best person for the job, and it is sad that people fall prey to the 'wasted vote' argument. Unfortunately, it's somewhat understandable, given the structural barriers that impede third party candidates from fairly competing.

    • profile image

      Ukiaharku 5 years ago

      Hi there, I have recently been reading a lot about third party politics and have been shocked that supposedly at least somewhere around sixty or seventy percent of Americans tend to more agree with third party politics then republicans and democrats... But will not vote for them just because they are afraid it is a waste of votes. What we need is to teach students a new class... It should be called "Political Parties" and it can teach the students about parties and allow them to pick whichever party they like the best. I myself use to be a republican, but have recently discovered about libertarians and right away become one.


      Ukiaharku (13)

    • Brad C. L. profile image

      Brad C. L. 6 years ago

      Yeah, if there is any good time for a third party to emerge, it is now. Unfortunately, I have my doubts. Even if a third party does emerge, I think people will still fall victim to the "they have no chance of winning and will steal votes," logic. I could be wrong. I hope I am. Also, there are still too many structural obstacles for third parties to overcome.

      And yes, a third party that isn't "extreme" is a good idea, but keep in mind that the main function of a third party vote is to protest the establishment. If enough people voted for one, the two main parties would pay attention, and I imagine the fringe elements of the third parties would be weeded out and the more moderate or 'reasonable' aspects of them would be adopted by the two main parties. The best we can hope for at this point is to have one of the two main parties adopt some aspects of third parties, sort of like gary johnson and ron paul working within the Republican party to turn it more libertarian. I would personally favor having more than two parties competing on equal terms right now, but that's unrealistic at this point.

      Personally, I think the libertarian party is too extreme, for example, but I still may vote for them over the two main parties because even if they did somehow get elected with their extreme positions intact, I seriously doubt they would get them seriously implemented. there would be too many objections from the powers that be.

    • profile image

      Rog17 6 years ago

      This next election may be the one for a strong third party to emerge. There is a nation-wide sentiment of disgust and mistrust for the big two after the debt ceiling debacle. I wonder if any third party is smart enough or strong enough to use it to their advantage. At the moment, I think I would be willing to vote for a legitimate (non-extreme) third party in every state and national elected office--I would like to see 100% turnover in the next four years. I know I won't see it, but I'd like it.

    • Brad C. L. profile image

      Brad C. L. 6 years ago

      Thanks, Reynold. this is my first hub, so I appreciate the compliment.

    • Reynold Jay profile image

      Reynold Jay 6 years ago from Saginaw, Michigan

      Lincoln began a 3rd party and did quite well.Goodbye WIGS! I enjoyed this very much. You have this laid out beautifully and it is easy to understand. Keep up the great HUBS. Up one and Useful. Hey! I'm now your fan! RJ