Maybe you’re a Republican who is shaking your head that “this is really happening“. Maybe you’re a Democrat who “got Berned” in the primary. Or maybe you’re among the clear majority of Americans who do not identify as Blue or Red ideologically. Maybe you are only registered one or the other to vote in the primaries, are outright third party, or are non-affiliated.
We’ve heard many people make the case made for voting the Lesser of Two Evils (LOTE). Even the First Lady has given us a stern warning against the consequences of “wasting our vote”. Proponents educate us on the error of our ways with excuses of pragmatism or fear. These warnings come mostly from people who admit they are not entirely happy with them, but really don’t see two evils. They see a merely imperfect candidate in mortal combat with Satan or Hitler. It’s not a hard choice for them, while we are wrestling with our consciences.
This article isn’t for them. This for people who are being shamed for not supporting one evil to defeat another. You don’t want to give away your vote to the least evil bidder when in your heart you know either way the cost is still Too Damn High™. This is a response to the fallacies about “wasting your vote” and it’s little brother, “splitting the vote”. This is a challenge to editorialists and ethicists who say the moral obligations and ethical choices are against you. I could call them big-party shills or shameful experts and they could call me unrecognized or unqualified as an ethicist, so I will do the only necessary, and right, thing. I will lay out many strong arguments that prove them wrong.
(1) Why not voting your conscience is rhetorically dishonest
Let’s start with the lowest-hanging fruit. “A vote for a third party is a vote for X”. Obviously this isn’t literally true. No amount of votes for someone gives another candidate more votes. The same is true for “taking away” a vote from someone else. The only way this is true is if you planned on voting for them and changed your mind. The argument is that your lack of a vote for one makes it easier for the other to win. Except it doesn’t. It makes it harder for either to win.
The closest thing to a truthful interpretation is the belief your individual vote is required for one to win over another. But that isn’t even vaguely true, as the following points make clear. The only candidate your vote can have any chance to make win, individually or collectively, is the one you are voting for.
(2) Why it is mathematically unsound
The odds of any one vote affecting outcome is functionally null. This is compounded when you account for the electoral college. But it’s actually worse, with overwhelming voter trends that wouldn’t change if G-d himself ran for office. And it’s even worse when you consider that most votes are wasted mathematically.
Seriously. Do the math.
Consider all the votes cast for someone that don’t result in electoral votes, and the excess of votes needed to win that didn’t even need to be counted. That alone means only 9% of votes gave us our primary choices this year. In other words, nobody who does the math cares how you vote as an individual. In almost every situation, a protest vote won’t stop the chosen one from taking the crown, and voting for them will not increase their chances. You can’t win less or more. The only thing you really can do is either support or protest, and be on record counted as such.
Therefore, the concept that “every vote matters” is insignificant compared to the subjective truth is that it matters to you. And it will not go unnoticed by candidates present and future. And it’s a self-fulfilling prophesy either way. There will never be a rise in a third party until and unless they can garner support. But if there are a lot of votes, more people will think it possible they can win and get on board. It’s determined by accepting or rejecting LOTE choices.
Pessimistic mathematics aside, consider if a bunch of undecided people could determine the outcome. If you and so many other people actually could purposefully defeat one evil by electing another, you could also prevent either from getting the required majority of electoral votes. And that is statistically not that difficult in this case. If Gary Johnson took his home state of New Mexico alone, that could force the House of Representatives to a compromise. That would send a huge message. And this scenario has played out twice in our history. Which brings me to my next point.
(3) Why it is hyperbole historically
Can we scry the future to see if a candidate will really be as bad as we think? You have to assume that, if elected, they would actually try to do the harm you believe, have the power to do such harm, and not be overridden by the other branches of government. It’s a big batch of guesses.
So how can we know? It is close to certain that — as always — the threat is amplified, exaggerated by a world of campaign rhetoric. Bush didn’t criminalize abortion and Obama didn’t outlaw capitalism. Almost nothing “sky is falling” people have predicted about any president has ever come to pass. Clinton won’t take away your guns and Trump won’t close mosques. In fact, they can’t. That’s not how our government works, and no amount of edicts can make a monarchy.
One concern is the empty seat in a precariously divided Supreme Court. Except they must be confirmed by Congress, and are expected not be be partisan. But the real power is in Congress, and some of those lifetime member “good ‘ole boys” have more power than many a president. The fear of what will happen cannot color our reason (or our vote) when we keep even a little perspective. We will deal with whoever gets elected as necessary, and the Grand Experiment will continue.
How important can an election be, really? Every election has some importance, but if the biggest driving force in the direction of the nation is voting for the presidency, what does that say about having rulers rather than leaders? I would hope and suggest there are many more impactful ways to affect the political process than filling a circle or pulling a lever every four years.
(4) Why it is democratically destructive
Voting choice based on likelihood of outcome is rigging the election against yourself in your own mind. You are making guesses about what your vote will mean based on assumptions of how other people are going to vote. This was never the purpose of democratic process, ever. In fact, that is one reason voting is supposed to be secret — you are not supposed to be influenced by how others will vote. Unfortunately, polls and early reporting within and across regions already undermines this. But why do it to yourself? You are denying yourself your voice in exchange for playing a game set up by circumstances dictated by popular sentiment and the powers that be.
Any vote cast that does not represent personal choice is a dangerous lie. It undermines an accurate knowledge of public sentiment. Whoever wins or loses is only half the story. The size of the winning margin should and does influences the future behavior of politicians wishing to be (re)elected, as well as how they represent their constituents.
(5) Why it fails logically
To believe a third-party vote will create a bad result, you must assume a great deal many things. You must assume how other people are voting. You must assume your vote will be of significant impact and in the direction you assume. You must assume the risk is high enough of disaster with one candidate and low enough for the other. And you must be sure enough in all these things to justify the consequence of your true position not being counted at all.
But that’s where simple logic exhausts itself. Even if you embrace a notion of pragmatism and the ends justifying the means, there is an absence of moral and ethical meta-context. So let’s look at that.
(6) Why it is morally wrong
There’s always room for matters of subjective opinion in morality. There is room for disagreement because we may each value some things more than others. But there are some staples most people agree on. Character is what you do when no one is looking, for example. Doing the right thing is still doing the right thing even if no one else does it, or other people disagree. But here’s a big one: you should do the right thing even if there are negative consequences. This is similar to the pinnacle of ethical principles — that the ends do not justify the means.
If you knew you would lose a war, would you bother to fight? If not, what of the “300” at Thermopylae. They’re all dead you say? Many a fallen hero has become the stuff of legend, and has given inspiration to future generations. We do not pride people simply for the outcome. As human beings, we recognize the value of taking a stand and keeping it against the the odds, in spite of the storm. We call it things like “integrity” and “courage”.
I have found this point to always separate the sheep from the goats. When push comes to shove, many are flexible on accepting that the ends justify the means. It has been argued that if the means aren’t that bad, and the good end is really good, it’s a good deal morally. It pains me to concede that point, idealist that I am. But this is not THIS discussion, remember? We are assuming that the ends may be only nominally better than the other alternative.
Let’s address another moral issue: Is accepting a short-term evil okay to solve a long-term problem? In other words, can we put off the advancement of a third option to avoid an immediate potential catastrophe? This assumes there are only two possible outcomes, but let’s let that slide for now. The argument here is that it’s worth putting off incremental progress on breaking the two-party paradigm to avoid a short-term disaster. It assumes avoiding disaster is important enough to put everything else on hold. It’s like kicking the can down the road to avoid being hit by a car. If there is even, in fact, a car. And if you can find the can after you kick it. Here we are with more “ifs”.
(7) Why it is ethically questionable
If this were not true, there would not have been centuries of debate on similar choices and a division of thought today. We can keep it simple and say this is a single choice resulting in a specific outcome. But that is myopic in the extreme. The consequences are both long and short-term. Margins of win or lose have real, deeper effects in the political and social milieu. And the implications toward ourselves and society are far-reaching. What we do and why we do it matters, not merely in a collective tally but in defining who we are and what needs to be done and how much.
This may seem abstract, but it is not. For example, the fact that Bernie Sander ran with such support has signaled in the importance of some issues that would not otherwise have been addressed. After diametric opposition, Clinton was forced to steal parts of his platform (at least in appearance) to make herself palatable to those who were insistent on those issues. Whether you are on board with any of that or not, such things give us a more accurate view of what people want than an election based on “pragmatic” reluctance.
But to exhaust this realm, here’s a common thought-experiment analogy and where it breaks down:
A train is out of control and you are at a switch. If it keeps going it will hit a bus full of children. If you flip the switch, it will take another track, hitting a single baby carriage. We could argue if you are a murderer if you flip it or guilty of negligent homicide if you don’t. We could agonize over terrible action or inaction. But here’s the catch — someone else put these people on the tracks and set you up to make the choice. Does that make you still responsible? What if there’s a third track with very little consequence? What if the track is switched by a majority decision of a dozen people? What choice will let you sleep at night?
Let’s go further. What if every year a bunch of people are stuck with the same dilemna? Will some people choosing the third track be a consideration to join that “side” even though it may have resulted in more children killed? What if the train moving in the first place is dependent upon people making the choice? What if enough people refuse to participate or just let it run it’s course? Won’t that change the way the people who set up the scenario do business, knowing people will refuse to play or choose better options when available? You can take it from there.
(8) Why it is psychologically dangerous
It seems quite effective propaganda to make an opponent out to be the Anti-Christ. This begs justification for voting for anyone else, making it look like a minor setback compared to an Armageddon averted. It also is “moral cover” to steal lawn signs, attack people in rallies (which has happened on both sides), and even firebomb party offices. Any time the term “at all costs” is employed or implied to achieve this or prevent that, it’s a devil’s bargain. Run screaming.
Being mentally locked into such a strict either/or paradigm elicits the fight-or-flight response of the reptilian brain. It becomes the playground of the dangerously stressed and suicidal. But it can be, and is worse for some people. When a choice seems crystal clear because the consequences seem black-and-white, we stray into the realm of fanaticism. And it is the nature of fanaticism to see anyone not for you as against you. Sound familiar?
People are obsessed in spades this election cycle and this drives them to need to only see two choices. Their goal is too important — more important than principles, integrity, conscience, and any argument you can possibly make against it. It’s not rational, only rationalized. They will continue to harp the deleterious effects of your choice as a trump card (pardon me, I had to play that pun eventually) and everything else just isn’t in their rational or emotional field of view. That’s why they are so passionate in saying not voting for the other guy isn’t enough. If you vote third party, you are the enemy.
(9) Why it is politically detrimental
The lack of voters considering and choosing outside the two-party system is the ultimate reason for our lack of choices. Holding the belief there are only two “viable” (which is not true at all in a number of states and localities), it is no wonder we are confronted with a race to the bottom. Neither party needs to proffer a qualified, ethical candidate that represents people’s interests because all that is necessary is to make the other candidate seem worse. Although this isn’t a new thing, we are definitely at the point where the only reason most people are voting against rather than than for someone. If people chose to reject both candidates, it will force them to compete against a “free market” of ideas rather than two flavors with varying forms of poison.
Even worse, the major parties count on votes based on party affiliation, ethnic and age demographics, or dollars spent in battleground states. Qualifications are little more than a campaign’s window dressing. Add to this journalistic neglect and various political hurdles and double standards, and we are a captive audience for the two-party paradigm.
Our voting dictates what we will tolerate, and reveals the price by which our votes can be bought. And if we vote for the lesser of two evils, all it will take is to be presented a “more evil” candidate each election cycle.
(10) Why the Founding Fathers are spinning in their graves
We must wonder if the Founding Fathers ever imagined it coming to this. Well, actually, they did. Many of them suspected parties would be inevitable, wished they could be contained within single issues or stay at the state level rather than federally. What was feared as its worst form was two nationwide behemoths creating a dangerous adversarial “balance” with only two sets of choices. Sound familiar?
We often brag that our system is terrible, but it’s better than any other. That might be true in some general sense of Democratic Republicanism. Maybe. But within the sphere of governments across the globe that have a democratic process, our seems to be the worst. Many countries have a lot more than three parties, but it’s more than that. Positions across legislative bodies are spread by popular vote among parties, not winner takes with the 49% of everyone else having no representation. In Iran, contrary to what a lifetime of sound bytes would have us believe, there is a quota of Christians and Jews that must be filled to represent those populations proportionately. Even in Soviet Russia — a single party system — people could vote “no” to all the candidates and an all new slate of candidates presented. And throughout the world, there are options for a “vote of no confidence” to an entire legislative body and throw them all out at once, which occasionally happens. (We’re still begging for term limits!)
I’m not saying any of these solutions are right for America, but there are a helluva lot of better ways to do things. But since we are America, why not go back to some of our own original ideas and practices. Make the person with the second-most votes vice president. And my favorite is the Third Clause of Section 1 of the Constitution, making each state pick TWO candidates, one from their own state and one from another. This accounts for home team bias and allows for a natural, democratic compromise. (Damn the 12th Amendment!)
This last solution is the reason apple pie is the best-selling kind of pie in America — it’s not always the most popular (by individual preference) and is nowhere near a “majority” choice, but it’s the one the most people (collectively) can agree on the most often. It is the opposite of “party politics” where candidates can’t help but conform to platforms (and their special interest backers) instead of the whole country’s popular will. Heck, I’d even be fine with going to a direct presidential election if we were allowed to each cast two votes. The Red/Blue monopoly would be broken overnight. Maybe people wouldn’t have to choose between which rights they can accept being violated in exchange for benefits or protections on the things that matter more to them. Right now it seems like the extremes are taking turns and we each blame the other side for being divisive.
So how do we demand it? The point of democracy isn’t to play games or hedge bets. It’s function in a Republic of Laws is to demand our individual choices and voices be heard, not to play a game rigged by our own acquiescence to forfeit out conscience.
Voting for the lesser of two evils is a fool’s game set up by the interests of others. It is based on false assumptions, bad math, and avoids all the ethical meta-contexts above. It is the replacement of integrity and courage with acquiescence. Though every vote counts in some intrinsic sense (even one that is not counted or cast), only voting your conscience represents the will of the people rather than rigging it further in a locked system. Being led by the nose into the same choices over and over must end. Now. Otherwise, there will always be another “sky is falling” candidate to keep us in line. Many, many Democrats and Republicans are casting off their expected allegiances these days. Both parties know this and are scared they will be the ones to lose more votes, playing the cards of fear and hate to polarize not just the nation but our minds into primitive fight-or-flight choices.
But after all this, if we consider voting the lesser of two evils is the most practical choice here and now, it will be measured against seemingly intangible but profound consequences. Will we tell our children and grandchildren we stood for something noble even if we did not believe we could win? Or do we confess to them with dishonest certainty that “it could have been worse” or the dishonest apology of “we did what we had to do”?
These are all the reasons I say vote your conscience. Others may find your moral choice to be the wrong one, but they are not preaching from the ethical high ground.