The myth of protest voting in America

· 928 words · 5 minute read

I’ve voted 3rd party in most of Presidential ballot contests in my adult life. Back in the early aughts, I was the treasurer for a county chapter of the Green Party. Some time later, I called myself a “little-l” libertarian but let go of that label as the neo-fascists began taking over. I gave money to Gary Johnson’s campaign in 2016.

I'm old enough to remember when this Simpsons episode aired in 1996.

Every time I named my intention to vote third party, I was confronted by friends and family who told me that I was throwing my vote away, that I was basically voting for “the other guy,” whomever they were afraid might win. I countered that voting for the lesser of two evils is still voting for evil, and I found that immoral. I said that the party they wanted me to vote for hadn’t earned my vote, that, yeah, I wanted Donald Trump to lose, but I didn’t want Hillary Clinton to win. If enough of us voted one way, it might change things - it might break the duopoly of the Democrats & Republicans, or it might force one of the parties to shift their polarity to earn our votes.

I understand now that I was wrong. I came to realize I held an understandable but deeply flawed conception of my role as a voter.

In countries with parliamentary system, where there are many parties with much narrower and opinionated policy conceptions, a voter can align with a party that fits their priorities and values quite closely and signal their alignment through their vote. However, to be able to govern, a coalition of parties has to be built with a majority constituency to form a government. After that coalition is formed, within it, the parties have to compromise their values and principled positions strategically in order to govern and be politically effective, and should they fail, the government falls apart and the cycle begins again.

In America, the coalition building happens before the election. The Democrats and the Republicans are coalitions, shifting from cycle to cycle, and they’re vying to see who can form a majority government. So, as a voter in America, we’re never going to be offered a buffet of parties from which we can select and identify the one that aligns with our moral character; we’re the ones who have to compromise and choose the coalition we want to see in power. We’re likely never to have a candidate who closely aligns with our personal politics.

In this upcoming Presidential election, absent one of our octagenarian front-runners fallin victim to actuarial inevitability before November, there are only two probabilities with any statistical significance: the winner of the election will be the Democratic candidate (presumably Biden) or the Republican candidate (presumably Trump). There is functionally a zero percent chance it will be RFK Jr., Jill Stein, or anybody else.

So as a voter, we get to choose from one of three choices: Donald Trump, Joe Biden, or “either is fine.” That’s it. Those are the choices.

Original artist: Jake Clark

Voting third party or not-voting out of principal are both examples of choosing “either is fine.” Voting third party does not and has not changed party platforms, because the voters who vote third party tend to be rather evenly split in whether they otherwise would have voted Democrat or Republican. Not-voting out of principal is noise indistinguishable from not-voting out of indifference, and the majority of eligible voters decline to cast their vote. So in either case, you’re choosing to leave it up to the rest of American voters to decide our leaders.

The American system simply does not have the concept of a protest vote. Whatever message you’re sending by voting third party or abstaining-from-principal will never be received - nobody is listening - and it abdicates what power you do have to choose among the actual options you have. You’re just leaving the decision to the rest of us.

You can absolutely argue it shouldn’t be this way. I’d get on board with that. But it’s not possible to argue that it doesn’t work this way. Your choices are “red,” “blue,” or “either-or.”

And I vastly prefer the Democratic coalition with all of its imperfections to the Republican coalition. I view the Democratic coalition as the only option with any kind of allegiance to rule of law, equal rights, and free-and-fair elections. I’m a one-issue voter now and that’s my issue. I will be voting blue down the entire ballot simply because of that issue. Should Biden and the Democrats win, they will do a great number of things that I disagree with and even that I’m morally opposed to - but that’s just how coalition governing works in our system.

I once belived that it was immoral to vote for the lesser of two evils and voting my conscience was moral… which is precisely wrong. It is immoral to do what feels good for me regardless of the harm it creates for others. Donald Trump is campaigning on the promise of doing harm to his political enemies and those he considers lesser-than: women, immigrants, LGBTQIA folx, non-Christians, and anyone who tries to hold him accountable.

The truth is that my vote for Johnson in 2016 wasn’t moral; it was just ego. The only tiny sliver of power I have to stop that is by voting for Biden and the Democrats.

So, there are just three choices: Democrat, Republican, or “whatever y’all think is best.” There are no other votes.