I keep having conversations with folks about presidential politics where the response ends up saying “you should vote third party”. Further discussions keep bringing up the same arguments as to why a person should do this, and they are invariably wrong. So, to save myself having to explain this anew each time, I’m going to write it all down in one place and then I’ll be able to provide a URL to that one place and save myself some sanity.
One by one, here are the arguments that folks use to justify voting third party in a presidential election:
Argument 1: Rise Up and Rebel against our two-party system, then others will join our revolution and we will finally achieve utopia!
Response 1: This is equivalent to “The lurkers support me in email”. The person saying this is not acknowledging the third-party numbers as they have thus-far panned out in US presidential elections. Third party candidates in presidential elections have never gotten anywhere near a majority.
Some numbers from recent elections where third party candidates made some impact on the results:
Bush Jr: 47.9%
Bush Sr: 37%
The illusion in Argument 1 is that there are secretly vast numbers of people who prefer third party candidates but due to ignorance, Republican/Democrat campaigning, secret interference from the illuminati, and so forth, they end up voting for a Republican or Democrat. The argument implies that if enough people vote for a third party candidate, that there will be some magical “tipping point” where the rest of the voting populace will throw off the shackles of the Illuminati and start voting for the candidate they secretly want, the third party candidate.
But this tipping point should have occurred in 1992. Perot got 20% of the total votes. If that isn’t enough to free the unthinking populous so they can vote for who they really want to vote for, I don’t know what will.
Occam’s razor demands that the simple truth is that the vast majority of people vote for the candidate they really want to vote for, and that third party candidates only get a small percentage of support.
Argument 2: Voting for a third party in a US presidential election doesn’t hurt anyone.
Response 2: Are you kidding? Ask Bush Sr in 1992.
Bush Sr: 37%
Most of the Perot voters would have chosen Bush as their next choice after Perot, had the US used some sort of condercet voting system. If a condercet voter would have voted 1 Nader, 2 Bush, 3 Clinton, but had to vote in the US system of simply “Nader”, then they helped Clinton get elected by not voting for Bush.
Gore got more votes in the 2000 election than Bush, but lost the election due to the way the electoral college gives points to the candidates. The 2000 election came down to the electoral votes for Florida.
In Florida, Bush got 2,912,790 votes. Gore got 2,912,253 votes. And Nader got 97,421 votes. Gore lost Florida’s 25 electoral votes because of 600 votes. Of the nearly hundred-thousand votes that Nader got, had a mere 600 of them cast their vote instead for Gore, Gore would have won Florida and the presidency.
I’m sure out of the hundred-thousand votes for Nader we could find 600 voters who would say that they would pick Gore over Bush as their second choice. But instead they voted for Nader, and helped Bush win Florida by throwing away their vote.
Argument 3: The two main candidates are the same. Tweedledee and Tweedledum. They are indistinguishable from each other.
Response 3: If you seriously believe that, you need psychiatric care. More than likely, you don’t want to acknowledge response 2, that voting for Nader actually helped Bush get elected. Or you’re Ralph Nader and you’re stumping for votes.
Anyone looking at history and saying that America would be no better off had Gore been in office in 2000 is delusional and immune to logic and reason.
Argument 4: OK, I’m going to downplay the notion that voting third party in a presidential election causes real harm by asserting that voting third party will cause the two main parties to realign themselves with our third party views, giving us better candidates in the next election.
Response 4: This is mathematical nonsense. Let’s say that in 2000, if you had been able to vote on a condercet voting form, you would have voted 1-Nader, 2-Gore, 3-Bush. But you can’t vote condercet, so you have to pick only one name to put on the ballot. Say you choose Nader. Say you are willing to gamble letting Gore lose just so that the Democratic party will pick a better candidate in 2004 or 2008. Now, lets throw some numbers out there.
Say Bush will cause -15 points of Damage to America if elected president. Say that Gore will cause +10 points of benefit to America if elected president.
Say you vote for Nader in order to send the democratic party a “message”. The year 2008 rolls around (we’ll skip 2004, because no incumbent president during a war has ever lost reelection). So, the Democratic party has to choose their candidate. They have Obama, with a +8 point benefit, or they have a third-party-leaner, Dennis Kucinich, who has a +10 benefit to the country.
Back in 2000, you voted for Nader, to send a message to teh democrats, but you ended up helping Bush win. You caused -15 points of damage to America with your vote in 2000. Now 2008 is here, and because of your “message”, the democrats pick Kucinich at +10, instead of Obama at +8.
-15 for Bush and +10 for Kucinich means the effect of your votes for 12 years was -5 points of damage to America.
If, instead, you had voted for Gore in 2000, and had to be willing to settle for a non-perfect candidate in Obama in 2008, then you would have +10 for Gore and +8 for Obama, giving your 12 year voting pattern a total of +18 points of benefits for America.
As a voter you had a choice between
Bush -> Kucinich = -5 points damage
Gore -> Obama = +18 points benefit
Any rational voter who can do simple math would vote Gore->Obama in this situation.
If you voted for Bush in 2000 with the hope of voting for Kucinich in 2008, then your attempt to “send a message” to the Democratic party caused -5 points of damage to the country.
Anyone arguing to vote third party in order to “send a message” to the Democratic party is arguing in such a way as to ignore the damage their third party vote causes immediately (Bush causing -15 points damage) and instead they’re attempting to focus on getting a better candidate the next election (Kucinich +10 versus Obama +8).
Argument 5: If you don’t try, you are guaranteed to fail.
Response 5: Uh, that’s trying to cover up the fact that your math doesn’t add up. It’s also trying to imply the “lurkers support me in email” notion back in Argument 1, that if enough people vote third party, maybe we can finally free ourselves of the Illuminatti overlords. None of which makes any objective sense.
Argument 6: Republicans adn Democrats are all the same. They’re all in the pockets of corporate interests. They’re all indistinguishable.
Response 6: Review response 3 again. If you think America would be absolutely no better off had Gore been in office during 9/11 instead of Bush, if you think Gore would have lied us into a war against Iraq, If you think Gore would have caused America to violate international law by committing torture on a grand scale, if you think Gore would have suspended habeus corpus and would have created an industrial scale spy network to wiretap every single American phone call, then you’re tin foil hat is slipping and you may want to consider upping your meds. Also, lithium is no longer available on credit.
Argument 7: Rage against the machine, man!
Response 7: Being angry and pissed off that your first pick for president won’t win is perfectly fine. Get pissed.
But don’t be an idiot and vote for a third party candidate when the two most likely to win candidates are Democrat and Republican.
Don’t try to convince yourself that the lurkers support you in email. Don’t try to convince yourself that if you can get enough people to vote third party, that you’ll throw off the shackles of the unfair Illuminatti system. Don’t try to convince yourself that you’re not causing any harm to anyone. Don’t try to convince yourself that the two main candidates are indistinguishable from each other.
Be pissed. But don’t lie to yourself about the facts.
Argument 8: But the system is unfair! The Electoral college sucks. Majority-vote-wins elections suck! We’ve got to do something!
Response 8: Sure. Just do something intelligent, and don’t do something stupid that causes harm. The system has flaws, and you should work to change the system without inflicting harm on the country in the meantime.
A presidential election is not the place to vote for a third party candidate as an attempt to protest the electoral college or to protest the majority-vote-wins system. You want to get rid of the electoral college? Then campaign to get rid of the electoral college while still voting strategically with the system we still have. You want condercet voting? Then campaign for condercet voting, while still voting intelligently using the system we have until it changes to condercet.
Argument 9: NO!
Response 9: There have been psychological experiments that show that our decision making process occurs at the gut level, the subconscious, and is not entirely rational.
An experimenter has two children, Alice and Bob, at a table. The experimenter gives Alice ten pieces of candy. The experimenter then tells Alice to divide the candy anyway they like and offer as many or as few pieces to Bob. If Bob accepts, the split stands as it is. If Bob rejects, neither gets any candy at all. Studies have shown that Bob will usually accept as little as 3 pieces of candy, but if Alice offers 1 or 2, Bob will reject, and no one will get any candy.
If the scenario is an iterated game, then rejecting anything other than a 50-50 split will train Alice to create a fair split. But if the game is a single, non-iterated game, then Bob is in an unfair circumstance, and should take anything that Alice offers.
Yes, the system is unfair. Yes, the electoral college is unfair and tilts the elections towards smaller states, giving them more votes than they deserve. Yes, a simple majority-vote-wins system sucks and silences the voices of third party candidates. But that isn’t like Alice and Bob splitting candy any more. That’s hundreds of millions of Americans dealing with the left over baggage of two hundred years of political process. If you’re Bob and reject Alice’s split on the candy because you decide she didn’t give you a “fair” split, the only person you hurt is yourself and Alice. If you decide the American voting system for the President is unfair and you decide to vote for a third party when a Republican or Democrat is most likely to win, then you are hurting a lot more than just yourself.
Bush->Kucinch caused -5 points of damage to all America.
Gore->Obama would have caused +18 points of benefits for all of America.
Sometimes the circumstances aren’t fair. But that doesn’t justify inflicting damage on everyone in some political protest of the system.
Counter-Argument 1: Voting Third Party in a state where one of the two main parties consistently wins is OK since I can’t alter the outcome anyway.
Response: I’ll go along with this to some extent. The main caveat is it has to be all but guaranteed that the race is going to go one way. Florida in 2000 was not a good time to be trying the third party vote. But if reliable polls (i.e. not a partisan poll, but something more like http://www.fivethirtyeight.com/ ) are saying that your state has 60% of its voters going to one candidate, then you might be able to safely exercise your third party vote.
If it turns out that your state was much closer and the third party votes for your state could have made the difference for the second candidate, well, that’s four years of trouble you brought upon your country because you guessed wrong.
But otherwise, if your state has voting margins wide enough to all but guarantee the winner, then voting for a third party candidate can help third party candidates get the support they need.
Counter Argument 2: Get rid of the Electoral College and implement Condercet voting.
Respons 2: Yeah. I’m all for that. It may take a long time, but it would certainly open up the field to many more candidates. The current Majority-Vote-Wins system automatically pushes the candidates into one of two major parties. all other parties are squeezed out completely. Having third parties would help break the monopoly held by the major parties. But that also means that the two major parties will automatically tend to resist anything that allows third paries, since allowing third parties and allowing condercet voting would automatically take power away from the two major parties.