Monday, November 7, 2016

If you want to vote, vote third-party (even in 2016)

Four years ago I wrote an article in the JHU News-Letter titled “Cast your vote for a third-party candidate.”  In that article, I lamented what I thought was wrong with American politics – and warned that unless people started voting for third-party candidates, these problems would only grow worse.

What were those problems? First, that “American politics have become a joke” due to “the complete absence of relevant, substantive discourse in modern political campaigns.” Second, there was “a pervasive lack of public confidence that our elected officials will be able to solve” the nations problems. And third, that “many Americans are so utterly uninspired by either candidate,” but are “told they should choose one of them anyway,” eroding the public’s belief that they have any meaningful say in how they are governed. I elaborated:
"The two-party system has proven itself incapable of presenting Americans with distinct, adaptive, varied choices that respond to their evolving demands in a timely manner. Instead, it creates duopoly on the services government offers, which is used to prevent any alternate choice from serious consideration…. Americans are beginning to recognize that contrary to mainstream rhetoric, the problem isn’t that one side is right while the other side is wrong. It’s more accurate to say they’re both wrong. It has become abundantly clear that whatever ails our nation cannot be fixed by either of these two parties as they currently operate. Although we claim to live in a democracy in which the people decide how they’re governed, there is a significant discord between what the voters want and what their government gives them. This is the deep-rooted problem that citizens have detected with American democracy.”

So, you tell me: have these problems gotten worse?

I hate to toot my own horn, but it seems to me they have. Over a million Americans followed my advice in 2012.  Roughly 125 million did not.  I warned those 125 million that voting for candidates “even though you don’t really like them sends parties the message that they can nominate whoever they please without jeopardizing your support, so long as they abuse you less than the other guy.” Four years later, that seems prescient. If the 2016 presidential election has proven anything, it’s that Americans hate both candidates more than ever before.

Now tell me another thing. If you were unsatisfied with your choices in 2012, and are even less satisfied with your choices today, how unsatisfied must you get before you stand up and reject those choices?  What would it take for you to do that? Where do you draw the line, and is there any good reason you haven’t drawn it already?

My aim today is to convince you there is not.  Contrary to the dominant popular narrative and endless apathy-shaming peer pressure that accompanies this day, it is not "so important" that you go vote, and the 2016 election is not the most important of your lifetime. Although the differences between the two major candidates are starker than they were four years ago, the logic of voting for a third-party candidate still applies, and it goes something like this:
  1. Your vote won’t change a damn thing.
  2. Knowing that, the only reason to vote is if it makes you feel good.
  3. Voting for Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump should not make you feel good.
  4. Voting for a third-party candidate who shares your values might make you feel good, and in any case is the most productive and meaningful vote you can cast.

    Therefore, if you want to vote, you should vote for a third party candidate.

Let's explore all four of these contentions in greater detail.

1. Your vote won’t change a damn thing.

It’s at this part of the argument that I should clarify something: I don’t really care if you vote for a third-party candidate.  It would be awesome if you do, but I won’t be upset with you or think less of you as a person if I learn you didn’t.

This is because voting, from the perspective of any individual deciding how to vote, is an unimportant waste of time.  It simply does not matter. No vote you have ever cast for any political office in your entire life – and especially for President – has changed the outcome of that election.  Anyone who believes otherwise is in desperate need of a math lesson. Consider the following:
  • Two-thirds of our country reside in non-swing states, whose Electoral College vote allocation is already certain.
  • Even in swing states, your vote has a 0.0% chance of changing which candidate gets your states votes.  No qualifying adverb, like “essentially” or “practically” 0%, is necessary; the decimal stretches so far beyond the number of significant figures our society commonly employs that 0% is the statistically accurate representation of that probability.  You are likelier to be struck by lightning on a sunny day while standing in line at the polling place.  You are likelier to be electrocuted by the voting machine.  You are FAR likelier to die in a car crash on the way to vote or on the way back from voting. It has never happened before, and never will in the future, that one vote has swung the outcome of an entire state. Your voice is simply not that important. Sorry if that makes you feel unheard, but if you're of voting age it’s high time someone ripped off the Band-Aid.
  • Even if your local advocacy were so persuasive that you convinced 100 additional people to vote for your candidate, it still will almost certainly not matter.  The smallest margin of victory in any state in any presidential election in the modern era was New Mexico in 2000, which Al Gore won by 366 votes.  Not that many people read your shit on Facebook, and even if they did, you’re not that persuasive anyway.
  • All Gore still lost that election, you’ll recall, which reminds us that even if your vote and voice were to miraculously swing the result in your state, you’d only have an 18% chance of changing the outcome of the election as a whole – if you live in Florida.  That’s according to Real Clear Politics, which calculates that the outcome in Florida has an 18% chance of determining the outcome of the election at large.  That’s the highest chance of any state.  Only three states have more than a 10% chance; only nine have more than a 2% chance. Most Americans live in states with less than a 1% chance of determining the election. So for you to actually “choose” the next president, you’d have to multiply your infinitesimal, statistically zero-percent chance of swinging your state by ANOTHER super low percentage.

To hear some people tell it, if you don’t like those odds, you are a selfish vain spoiled unpatriotic asshole who hates our troops,  disrespects our veterans' sacrifice, and doesn’t appreciate just how good you have it. You have also, if they are to be believed, forfeited your right to complain.  As George Carlin famously noted, that is complete hogwash.

Voting is a right – not an obligation. The only people who forfeit the right to complain about the President are the people who DO vote, and do so for the winning candidate. They got their way; if things don’t turn out, they have nobody to blame but themselves.  But nobody else in society played any role in creating the lamentable conditions, and as such have every right to complain as loudly as they please. There is no civic duty to spend hours in line awaiting an opportunity to kiss the state’s ass – which is all voting is, once you realize your vote doesn’t matter. There are no moral implications at play, and you shouldn’t feel guilty if you choose not to involve yourself.  There has never been a better time to not vote, nor a time when your vote was less statistically important than it is now.

2. Knowing that, the only reason to vote is if it makes you feel good.

Not everything you do needs to accomplish something. For example, many Christians attend church every Christmas Eve, even if they don’t particularly like church, and don’t ordinarily attend at other times of the year. This is not because they believe attendance on that one day a year will actually make the difference between their going to heaven and their going to hell; it’s just something they feel obliged to do, in concert with others in their community, at the designated date. They do it in part to pay respect to a social custom they’ve been taught from an early age is venerable and sacred and bigger than themselves. They also do it in part because they leave the service feeling fulfilled and connected to their community through a shared experience.

So it is with voting: it’s mostly something we do to make ourselves feel good. Voting is a ritual we perform out of tradition, out of respect for certain hallowed institutions, because we’ve been taught from an early age that it’s the socially expected way to honor the lofty principles of democracy. It’s akin to the thrill of buying a lottery ticket: in the back of your mind, you know it’s a silly and inefficient expenditure of resources, but the drama of it provides a certain fleeting excitement anyway.

This is why I vote: for purely symbolic purposes, it makes me feel better to know I’m doing what little I can to nudge our country’s policy in the direction I think it should go. It’s not especially productive, but neither is playing video games, and Lord knows I do plenty of that. If it makes you feel good too, and you know what you’re talking about, why not?

Not everyone is like me, though. If you don’t leave the ballot box feeling fulfilled by having performed this ritual, or don’t know enough about the election to feel qualified picking one over the other, my advice is to stay home and spare yourself the hassle. Don’t feel guilty about it either. Spend five minutes donating to an online charity instead, and you will have done more good for the world than any condescending blowhard who tries to shame you for it. There are over 13 million things you could do with your time that will make more of a difference, and you can rest assured that your decision won’t change the outcome of the election anyway.

But whether you do or don’t, the main point is this: once you understand that voting is just a ritual you perform to make yourself feel good, there’s no point in voting for anybody who doesn’t make you feel good.  It makes zero rational sense to “vote strategically”, as the strategically sensible move is always to do something else besides vote.

The realization that your vote won’t change a thing is depressing at first, but eventually it’s liberating: it means you can afford to indulge your conscience.  No matter how much is at stake, you can rest assured that you won’t be responsible for whatever happens.

As I said above, the whole glorified process of ceremoniously adding your drop to the bucket is sort of silly, even when you really believe in the person you’re voting for. When you don’t, it’s downright sad! I suppose there’s a certain patriotic symbolism in sacrificing your time to stand up for your principles, whether or not it makes a difference.  But there’s nothing more tragic than standing in the cold for hours on end just to halfheartedly signal your inaudible support for someone you detest!  That’s not responsible citizenship, that’s just being a sucker.

You can’t romanticize about the importance of “making your voice heard” in one breath, and then in the next implore people to vote for the lesser evil – against their voice’s true preference – out of cold, calculating strategic cynicism.  If voting for a third-party candidate is throwing your vote away, it’s only because voting for ANYBODY is throwing your vote away.  And if voting really matters and works, then how can it be meaningless to vote for what you believe in?  You can’t straddle both sides of the argument. Either elections are a noble solicitation of the popular will, or they’re a sham you have no obligation to take part in.  Whichever you choose to believe, voting for Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton is a bad answer, for reasons I will now enumerate.

3. Voting for Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton should not make you feel good.

I mentioned earlier that I don’t really care if you vote for a third-party candidate.  That’s true.  What I care most about is that you NOT vote for a major-party candidate. For your sake, I would much rather you stay home.

You should not vote for a major party candidate in 2016 because those candidates are Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.  Hillary Clinton embodies everything that’s wrong with American politics.  Donald Trump embodies everything that’s wrong with the Nazi politics.  This means voting for Donald Trump is inexcusable, and voting for Hillary Clinton is a waste of time.

For brevity’s sake, I have decided to house the justifications for point #3 on a separate page, accessible below via hyperlink.  Unfortunately, the list of reasons why voting for these candidates should not make you feel good is rather extensive, and it disrupted the flow of my overall argument to include another six pages of text on this page.  Besides, if you’re like most Americans, I’m already preaching to the choir here, so it seemed wasteful to interrupt the larger point by beating a dead horse. On the slim chance you don't already know this, here is why you shouldn’t feel good about voting for Donald Trump.

And, on the slightly larger chance you don't already know this, here is why you shouldn’t feel good about voting for Hillary Clinton either.

4. Voting for a third-party candidate who shares your values might make you feel good, and in any case is the most productive and statistically meaningful vote you can cast. Therefore, if you want to vote, you should vote for a third party candidate.

I’ll begin this final salvo by again referencing my frustration back in 2012:

“Each election seasons brings a fresh batch of meaningless, infantile banter about irrelevant distractor issues. Each campaign speech seems designed only to rile up a target audience instead of addressing the nation’s actual problems. Each party blames the other for all the nation’s woes, and yet no matter which party wins things only ever seem to get worse. Time and time again, bold promises become bald-faced lies, and Americans lose faith in their leaders’ competence and motives. With so much misplaced trust in prior politicians, it’s no wonder that so many Americans are so utterly uninspired by either candidate this year.

What they’ve been told over and over again is that they should choose one of them anyway. The importance of that “choice” is constantly stressed by the media and by politicians from both major parties. “The outcome of this election”, they tell us, “is too important to waste your vote on anyone else.”

If this was evident in the 2012 election, the 2016 election has proven it to the point of parody.  Most Republicans hate Trump, but they will vote for him anyway on the laughable pretense that “a vote for a third-party is a vote for Hillary!” Most Democrats detest Clinton, but they will vote for her anyway on the plainly false belief that “a vote for third-party is a vote for Trump!” Both parties face fierce internal tumult and dissention, but the one thing holding them together is an overwhelming fear of the other side.  They reflexively regurgitate the tired trope that voting 3rd Party is "throwing your vote away" because those parties cannot win - as if it were written into the code of the universe that two broken, corrupt, unprincipled, fear-mongering, power-hungry parties are the only conceivable options to govern human affairs.

Fuck em. Don’t cave to their fear-mongering.  Don’t give them what they want from you. South Park’s parody of this absurdity is over-quoted, but I’m going to quote it again: it isn’t your patriotic duty to choose between a Giant Douche and a Turd Sandwich.  The emotion which drives you to spend your afternoon at the ballot box on November 8th should not be fear.  The fact that it will be, for millions of Americans this year, proves only that over the long term our enemy is not Trump and it is not Clinton.  The enemy holding this country back is the myth that we have to pick one of them.

Voting for a major party candidate exacerbates that problem, even if only by a puny margin.  An anarchist friend of mine has a t-shirt that reads “Don’t vote – it only encourages them.”  He’s largely right.  Buying into the false dichotomy of entrenched power brokers strengthens their belief that they can do whatever they want and govern however they please without fear of losing your support, so long as they remain the second worst option. Prove them wrong.

Voting third-party is not merely the most idealistic choice, but also the most pragmatic. Gary Johnson doesn’t have a very good chance of winning – at all – but he has a much, much better chance of winning than your vote has of influencing the outcome of the election.  And unlike the major party candidates, casting a vote for Johnson sends a productive and important message even if he loses.

If Johnson gets more than 5% of the popular vote (which your vote has a much higher statistical chance of ensuring than it does of flipping the victor, considering he’s currently polling at 4.6%) the Libertarian Party will get guaranteed ballot access and qualify for matching federal funds in the 2020 election.  That is incredibly significant. At present, over 90% of the efforts of third-party campaigns are consumed by just trying to win ballot access in all 50 states. Clearing that hurdle would allow them to set their sights on inclusion in the Presidential debates next year.

If you like Johnson the most of the three, but you’re still nervous about your least-preferred evil winning the election, try this.  Go to, click on what state you’re from and which major party candidate you’d vote for were there no third-party option, and they will use your Facebook profile to literally find you a match from the other side.  So if you’d otherwise vote Clinton but would prefer Johnson, they will link you with a Republican who would otherwise vote Trump but also prefers Johnson, and let you chat.  If you both agree to vote Johnson instead, Johnson’s tally will go up by two and neither of the two evils will be advantaged nor disadvantaged by your actions.

If you don’t want to vote, don’t bother. But if you do want to vote, cast a vote that actually matters to you, instead of wasting it on someone you don’t believe in.  My 2012 closing argument still applies:
“If [either major nominee] is everything you’ve ever dreamed of in a candidate, then by all means vote for them. But if not, I urge you to look at the bigger picture this November. Ask yourself if you’re really satisfied with the amount of choice you have in how you are governed. Set aside any lukewarm tolerance for the side that annoys you the least, and objectively ask yourself whether either of these two candidates truly deserve your vote. If the answer is no, don’t give it to them. Halfheartedly picking the lesser of two evils will do little to truly alter our nation’s course. Instead, vote for real change, and send a message that you expect a real choice in the future. Vote for a third party candidate.”

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