a blog by J.M. Cottle
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Will you be voting honestly or strategically in this election?

If you’re eligible to vote in the US, you’re probably thinking about your choices. (If you’re not thinking about this, you should be — unless you already voted early, in which case, thank you.) There are many important issues on our ballots, but we all know the one that’s at the forefront of most people’s minds: who should be president?

We also all know what our choice is: Obama or Romney? There are other candidates, but they don’t stand a chance, so most people don’t even consider them. Who would want to vote for a candidate who’s basically guaranteed to lose?

The thing is, the two most visible candidates don’t represent me. In fact, the Democratic and Republican parties scare me. Put aside the campaign rhetoric and they’re not really that different once they get into office. Admittedly, one of them scares me more than the other, but is that a good reason to vote for someone? Because they are less scary than the other guy?

The case for voting honestly

I started thinking about this when I checked out VoteEasy, a cool interactive test made by Project Vote Smart to help us figure out which candidates represent us best. I discovered that two of the third party candidates agree with me on every issue included in VoteEasy. Every single one! That’s amazing to me. There are politicians out there who hold the same views as me, politicians who don’t make me feel scared about the future.

And you know what? There are a lot of people out there who agree with these politicians, but they aren’t going to vote for them, for two reasons:

  1. They don’t know anything about them, because the system makes campaigning difficult for third parties.
  2. They’re scared.

If all the people who agree with third party politicians were to stop being scared and vote honestly, we might see some real improvements in our government. Perpetuating the idea that third party candidates will never win only discourages people from voting for them, which is exactly why they will never win. If we want to break the cycle and put together a government that represents our real views, we’re going to have to find some courage and actually vote for the people who represent our real views. I know, it’s shocking.

Aside from being honest with our votes, there’s another good reason to vote for third party candidates who really represent us: It gives them a boost in the next election. If a third party, such as the Libertarian Party or the Green Party, gets 5% of the vote in an election, they can be on the ballot right away at the start of the following election without having to wait until they’ve gathered enough support (while the Democrats and Republicans are already busy campaigning, of course).

Another thing we can do to help our favorite third party candidates is choose them in pre-election polls. The Presidential Debate Commission, which is in charge of the televised debates, only allows candidates with 15% support in polls to participate. Third party candidates need to be able to get into the media in order for people to learn about them and want to vote for them, because most voters aren’t going to go out and do their own research, but many polls don’t even include third party candidates by name, lumping them in together under “other”.

There’s no good reason why presidential debates on TV shouldn’t include every candidate. There’s only a bad reason: if the two major party candidates know that they’re our only viable options, they don’t have to worry too much about pleasing us, because we’re going to vote for them anyway.

If you want to see Gary Johnson (Libertarian Party), Virgil Goode (Constitution Party), Rocky Anderson (Justice Party), and Jill Stein (Green Party) debating, watch the online Third Party Debate moderated by Larry King. Even if you don’t look at the debates on TV and think something is missing, this is worth watching. Third party candidates are an interesting crowd.

The case for voting strategically

As we can see, the system doesn’t make it easy for a third party campaign to get itself off the ground. Eventually we may get to a point where there are more than just two candidates that might have a chance of winning, but changing such large systems – and changing the way people think about voting – is going to take time.

Meanwhile, we still have to live with the choices made by the major party candidates who win elections. These people have great potential for making my life a living hell. What if my vote goes to a third party candidate who has no chance of winning, and the scarier candidate wins the election because of it?

Well, honestly, running away to Canada might start to sound like less of a joke.

But seriously. Ralph Nader, the Green Party candidate in 2000, was accused of taking votes that would otherwise have gone to the Democratic candidate, Al Gore, which allegedly caused Gore to lose to the Republican candidate, George Bush. Whether or not this was true in that particular election is beside the point. Have you seen the things Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan have been saying? If you’re not afraid when you listen to these two, you might be a rich white Christian straight cisgender man. The rest of us are getting pretty nervous right about now.

There may be better ways to change the system than voting for candidates who are basically guaranteed to lose. If we worked on changing the rules so that third party candidates would be allowed to participate in the debates, or so that candidates could only spend a certain amount of money on their campaign, or so that we could vote for our top two or three choices instead of having to vote for one out of fear, then maybe we could change things without risking our country’s future.

My voting method

All of this so far has ignored the existence of the electoral college, which is yet another hurdle to third party candidates and is kind of like the wisdom teeth of our election system – at best, it’s superfluous, and at worst it completely messes everything up.

My own personal ideal for elections (which is informed only by casual research and a high school level understanding of how it all works, mind you) is this: every registered voter should get a booklet informing them of the positions of the candidates, and before election day we should all take a small test that proves we read it and understood it. That way we’ve got an informed voting population and we don’t need the electoral college. People who don’t care enough about the issues to read the information and take a small test should not be voting. Their votes are random, probably based on which candidates can afford the most advertising time on TV, and random voting is dangerous. It’s worse than not voting at all.

Since this scenario is not the current reality of our country, we have to work within the system. I’ve decided that the best way to balance honesty and strategy is to use the electoral college.

Most states always have a Democratic or Republican majority, and in those states it doesn’t really matter if third party candidates take votes away from the two major parties, because the electoral college votes are basically destined to go one way or the other. In those states, we should vote for the candidate who honestly represents us, whether or not they have a chance of winning, because we might be able to give them the aforementioned boost in the following election. In swing states, however, where there isn’t a clear majority and it’s possible that voting for third party candidates could make a difference in which major candidate gets the state’s electoral college votes, it’s better to vote for the Democrat or Republican who scares you the least.

Fortunately for me (I guess?) California is a Democratic state, so my vote is not going to make any difference in who becomes the next president and I get to give it to the candidate who honestly represents me the best.

What do you think of all of this? Am I way off base? I wouldn’t be terribly surprised. I am not all that interested in politics and I only do the research because it’s my duty as a citizen. Do the two main parties represent you? If not, are you going to vote for them anyway?

2 Responses to Will you be voting honestly or strategically in this election?

  1. This is exactly why I went from voting for third party candidates when I lived in NJ to voting for major party candidates in NH.

    At least when it comes to voting for president.

    It seems like a bigger issue would be the lack of third party candidates at other levels: mayor, board of ed, state representatives and senators, governors. Local politicians affect my life much more directly than the president, and in many of these elections there are only major party candidates running.

    • That’s true, the rest of the candidates are a whole other issue. I don’t know that much about why there are few third party candidates at other levels, or how we could help fix that, aside from running ourselves. I guess everyone focuses on the president because they’re the face of the country, whether or not they have as much power as people think they do. They do have the power to choose Supreme Court judges. That could become important very soon. Those judges are getting old.

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