In a famous episode of The Simpsons, Homer exposes both presidential candidates as in fact space aliens conspiring to take over the earth and enslave humanity. Among the watching crowd, one person proposes voting for a third-party candidate, and one of the aliens responds, “Go ahead! Throw your vote away!” after which Ross Perot in frustration punches through his hat. The episode ends showing that one of the aliens has in fact won the election.
Ross Perot’s 1992 independent campaign for US president received 18.9% of the popular vote, a larger percentage of the vote than any other candidate outside the two-party system since Teddy Roosevelt’s 1912 bid to derail William Howard Taft’s reelection campaign (resulting in the election of Woodrow Wilson). Yet despite his success attracting individual voters, Ross Perot received no votes in the electoral college. Not since 1968 has any third-party candidate received any electoral college votes, apart from individual faithless electors who have not changed the outcome of the election. It is easy to see why many people consider voting for anyone other than the Republican or Democratic candidate is simply “throwing you vote away.” I would like to suggest a more nuanced analysis.
While the Constitution does not officially specify that the United States must have a two-party system, I am not so foolish as to think that any third party is likely to supplant the Democrats or the Republicans; every election since 1852 has been won by either a Democratic or a Republican candidate, and I do not foresee that changing any time soon. So it seems that voting for any other candidate would be hopeless. But that presumes that the only reason to vote for someone is because you hope they will win the election; although this may seem obvious, we might usefully question whether it is true.
I would draw from the military distinction between tactics and strategy: tactics are what you use right now to win the battle you are facing, while strategy is what you use to win the larger war of which this battle is just an episode. Most voters are tactical voters: they vote for the person they want to win this election. And this seems a reasonable approach if an acceptable candidate could plausibly win the election. But it is possible for a battle to be a tactical defeat but a strategic victory. It is also possible, as in the extraterrestrial election envisioned by The Simpsons, for a battle to be a tactical victory but a strategic defeat. If neither major party candidate is acceptable, it may be worth thinking more strategically, with the assumption that this will not be the last election.
While we are stuck with the two-party system, what it means to be Republican or Democratic has changed over time. Republicans used to be strongly anti-slavery and anti-Confederacy (Lincoln was the first Republican president), while today a surprising number of Republicans espouse Confederate nostalgia. “States’ rights” only became a Republican talking point since the 1960s southern US shift to the Republican party. Democrats were formerly the party of limited government, and a significant portion of them opposed the Civil Rights legislation of the 1960s, whereas now many Democrats favor big government and extending Civil Rights categories to include not only race and gender but also sexual orientation and transgender identity. It used to be common to find “liberal Republicans” and “conservative Democrats.” The party institutions have continued even as the ideological tendencies of members have varied widely.
To think strategically about elections means we might consider voting as a mechanism for influencing how future campaigns pursue potential voters. Voting for a third-party candidate is different from not voting in that it indicates that here is a voter engaged enough to vote, but unwilling to vote for either major-party candidate. In other words, here is a voter who could be persuaded in the future to vote for a major-party candidate, if a more acceptable one were to be offered. Of course, in our elections with many millions of voters, no campaign is going to think much about attracting one more voter. Yet elections are typically decided with less than 5% difference between the popular votes of the two major-party candidates, so any third party that receives more than 5% of the votes will attract the attention of major-party strategists on both sides seeking to enlist those votes in future elections. After 1992, President Bill Clinton shifted Democrats’ economic policies to more closely align with those of third-party candidate Ross Perot.
If either major-party candidate is acceptable, it makes sense to vote tactically, in hopes that your favored candidate will win. But if neither the Republican nor the Democratic candidates are acceptable (as seemed to many, including me, in 2016), not voting is simply refusing to participate, and is indistinguishable from not caring. But voting for a third party is a way to signal to the major parties that there is a vote available for the future, if certain conditions are met. Which third party you vote for (if multiple are available on your ballot) further indicates the direction you would like both major parties to shift. Third-party voting is bad tactics, but it can be good strategy.
And in that light I have become very interested in the development of the American Solidarity Party and the 2020 presidential candidate they have put forward, Brian Carroll. The party seems to have developed from voters like me who think that both major parties have finally become too antithetical to the values which I hold as a Christian. Strong support for Solidarity might effectually pull both parties toward those values as major party strategists court those voters, even if Solidarity never wins an election. A strong third party can be a force for reforming the major parties. Voting for a third-party candidate is not necessarily “throwing your vote away.”