Is a third-party vote a wasted vote? People frequently claim — implicitly or explicitly — that it is. I will argue that it isn’t. Actually, voting third-party might be a solution to a long-standing problem.
[Update: I argue similar things on this podcast.]
1. The Two Party Problem
To begin, consider the two-party system. Ask yourself, “Is this the best system for nominating the greatest quantity of competent and viable candidates?” Obviously not. After all, the two-party system gives us only …well, two viable options! Think about it: the only system that can produce fewer viable candidates is a dictatorship. So any other (democratic) election system would be better than a two-party system.
Let’s call this unfortunate situation the two-party problem.
Obviously, a solution to the two-party problem requires more than two viable parties.
2. Third Parties
The good news is that so-called third parties already exist. The bad news is that none of them have produced viable candidates in US presidential elections. So what’s the hold up? It’s obvious: Not enough people vote for third parties.
So if we want to overcome the two-party problem, then it seems that third parties will have to — among other things — receive more votes.
3. Voting To Win
In my experience, many people are interested in third parties. Some people even prefer third-party candidates/platforms over the two major parties. However, few — if any — of these people seem willing to actually vote for the third parties. This seems odd. If these people like and even prefer third parties, then why would they not vote for the third-party?
Here is the reason I hear most often: “I want my vote to count.”
The implication is that people want to vote for a party with a chance of winning — i.e., one of the major two-party’s candidates. We can call this the voting to win strategy.
4. The Problem With Voting To Win
First, voting to win perpetuates the two-party problem. Think about it.
Every year two very unpopular candidates soak up almost all the votes simply because they are represented by one of the two most popular parties. Why? Because — among other things — people vote to win. They vote for one of the two major parties (even if they don’t like the candidates!) simply because those candidates belong to one of the two parties with the best chances of winning. As a result, that the two popular parties remain popular even if their candidates aren’t popular. In other words, the people who vote to win perpetuate the two-party problem (For a better analysis, see “Duverger’s Law” and Duverger 1972).
Second, when it comes down to it, we don’t actually think that voting to win is better than competing strategies. Imagine for a moment that Hitler is one of the candidates in the election. And imagine that the best analysis of all the polling indicates that Hitler is very likely to win — probably by a landslide. In other words, no other candidates are likely to win. Does that mean that we shouldn’t vote for the other candidates? Of course not! Why? For starters, we don’t align with Hitler’s values and policies. In other words, when we it comes down to it, voting to win isn’t nearly as important to us as voting to align — more on that in a second.
The point of this section is that voting to win is bad for two reasons: it perpetuates the two party problem and it doesn’t reflect our considered values and policies.
5. Voting To Align
Imagine a different strategy: vote for the candidate/party that most aligns with you.
[Protip: Procon.org helps you quickly rank candidates according to how well they aligned with your views.]
If this were an operative strategy, then every person who preferred a third-party would actual vote for a third-party. According to my experience, this would increase the third-party vote because — as I mentioned earlier — more people align with third-party options than actually vote for third-party options.
And as the percentage of people voting for third parties increases, three important changes might occur.
5.1 Voter Perception
As third-party voting becomes more common, the perception of third-party voting could change. Third party voting could become more normal, and therefore more acceptable. This would mean that people have less reason not to vote third-party. Further, it might even influence people to identify more with third parties or as independents (Jørgen, Elias, and Pedro 2012). Notice that this could be a sort of self-reinforcing effect: as third party voting becomes more normal, more people vote third-party, which makes voting third party voting even more normal, …etc.†
Notice also that normalizing third party voting could also lead to further changes.
5.2 Party Incentives
As more people vote for the third party options that they prefer, the two most popular parties could become weaker. And as the two major parties become weaker, they are less able to win elections with such unpopular candidates. As a result, the two major parties will have newfound incentive to offer candidates that are not so unpopular.
5.3 Campaign Donor Incentives
As third party options become more viable, the risks of investing in a single candidate might increase. With two candidates a donation has — all other things being equal — a 50% chance of getting a candidate into office. With three viable candidates, a donation has only a 33% chance. With four, they have a 25% chance. Etc. The upshot is that viable third party options could impact campaign donation incentives.
With more viable candidates campaign donors might (a) invest in multiple candidates or (b) invest less overall or (c) both. It seems that all of these options could lead to more democratic campaign finance schemes since corporations and wealthy groups would either donate less or donate less unevenly.
The two party problem is suboptimal. A viable third party option seems like a natural improvement. Producing a viable third party option seems to require that people — among other things — abandon the vote to win strategy. A better strategy is voting to align. It seems that this strategy could, in the long run, improve parties’ incentives and voters’ perceptions. And when incentives and perceptions reach some critical mass, voters might succeed in creating a viable third party option!
And remember the Hitler case: when it comes down to it, the voting to align strategy outshines the voting to win strategy. That is, when the candidate who is most likely to win clearly trespasses our values, then we are justified (if not obligated) to vote for someone else.
† Then again, there is some evidence that third party progress could somehow stifle third party progress; weird, I know (see Werfel)
Bølstad, J., Dinas, E., & Riera, P. (2012). Tactical Voting and Party Preferences: A Test of Cognitive Dissonance Theory. Political Behavior, 35(3), 429–452. [Paywall]
Duverger, M. (1972). Factors in a Two-Party and Multiparty System (pp. 23–32). New York: Thomas Y. Crowell. [Free]
Duverger’s law. (2016, July 24). In Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.
Werfel, S. H. Crowding-Out in Policy Preferences. [Open Access]
Image via pixels.com adapted from a Quick Meme by Nick Byrd