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Why voting for a third party is not a wasted vote
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.
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.
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.