We have all heard the running narrative that Americans are being forced to choose between the ‘lesser of two evils’ in the 2016 presidential race. It supposes that neither Hillary Clinton nor Donald Trump are good options for the presidency. This has led people to look for alternatives in third party candidates; most notably Governor Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party and Jill Stein of the Green Party. They are currently polling about 6% and 2% respectively. We’ve also all heard that Ralph Nader’s candidacy cost Al Gore the Presidency in 2000, by taking just 2.74% of the popular vote. While no one can blame voters for seeking alternatives to the mainstream candidates, now is not the time to be doing so. In this election, it is more important than ever not to waste our votes. If a large enough sect of the electorate vote for third party candidates, it could take votes from Clinton, as it did from Gore.
Protest voting is usually a legitimate mechanism in democracy. For example, in the 2015 General Election, Scots in 56 out of 59 constituencies voted for the SNP knowing that there wouldn’t be an SNP prime minister; but to send a message. A large part of this was a symbolic rejection of Westminster as the central government. However, the American electorate cannot afford to send a message by protest voting and avoiding voting for Clinton, a notorious embodiment of ‘the Establishment’. This is because the alternative; a sexist, racist, unqualified liar, is too dangerous.
Sadly, this is the result of the Electoral College system. A system where, as in 1992, a candidate can win 19% of the popular vote and receive no Electoral College representation; and a system where a candidate can win the popular vote and not the presidency, as in 2000. It is unacceptable that in a free and fair democracy, there is so little choice for voters. But, unfortunately, in 2016 that is the political reality. Last month, Senator Bernie Sanders, the longest serving Independent in the history of Congress noted that this was ‘not the time for a protest vote.’ Despite commenting on the importance of third party candidates for the enhancement of democracy, he asserted that the stakes in this election are just too high. Sanders is right; third parties are important even in a First Past the Post system, for keeping political pressure up and for co-optation of policy. Lest we forget that at the start of this election season, a vote for Trump would have been considered an anti-establishment protest vote. But Trump’s candidacy, which once seemed like a joke, is all too real now and we should not increase his chances by boycotting supporting his opponent.
Furthermore, despite everything else, both Johnson and Stein are both seriously questionable choices for candidates. Johnson has dubious tax plans and claims he would rid the US of several fundamental agencies, such as the Department of Education and the Department of Homeland Security. He also seems to be lacking some basic political – or even everyday – knowledge, like knowing what Aleppo is, or being able to name a single foreign world leader. Stein, a medical doctor, has pandered to the anti-vaccine movement and called Brexit a ‘victory’ before reversing and trying to cover up her statement.
President Obama stated that a vote for a third party candidate is a vote for Trump, and we should listen. Though bleak, this political situation is the reality. We should always strive to improve democracy by enhancing participation and choice, but right now we must avoid the dangerous.
Image credit: Paul Stein