‘Make your vote count’. This is a phrase that is heard frequently in political commentary as elections approach, almost always uttered by or on behalf of a representative of one of the two major parties. The implication is usually as follows: sure, that up and coming independent or minor party candidate may have some great ideas, and may have policies closer to your true opinions or beliefs than the Republican or Democratic candidate running in that race, but they’re not going to win. You’re just ‘throwing your vote away if you vote for them. You need to vote Democrat or Republican ‘to make your vote count’.
I would like to encourage you all to resist that line of thinking, but possibly not for the reasons or in the manner that you might expect. Often, for those looking to counter the above argument, the counterargument that is often made is some variation of ‘well, X might not have a lot of support right now, but if everyone who really thought X was the best candidate voted for them, they could win! This is not the argument I am going to attempt to make. And that is because the fact of the matter is, due to the USA’s ‘first past the post’ electoral system, the system is effectively designed to encourage two dominant parties, and especially in large state and national elections, the winner will almost always come from one of the two major parties. Thus, if you have a clear favorite among one of the two major parties, who you agree with on many (if not all) issues, and whom you deem to be of reasonable character and temperament, you should probably vote for that person. For many people, this will be the case more often than not.
But wait, I thought this was supposed to be a post arguing against voting for the major party candidate? To be honest, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Have I confused you yet? OK, let me try to clear things up. The best summary of my position on this issue is as follows:
- Most of the time, in major US elections, due to structural advantages, the R or D candidate is going to win.
- When there is an independent candidate in a major US race, often there are people who feel like voting for that candidate but ultimately choose not to, due to 1.
- Even if most of these people were to vote for the independent candidate, that candidate still often times would not win.
- If your heart and mind are pulling you towards voting for an independent/third party candidate, you should do it and likely won’t regret it.
Wait, how does item 4 flow from items 1-3? Allow me to explain.
First of all, when people think about ‘making their vote count’, often I think they are making more of an emotional statement than a mathematical calculation. Take modern presidential elections for example. Over 100 million people vote these days in the presidential general election. Even though each state’s votes are tallied separately (in the electoral college), the situations where a major election is decided by a close (less than 1,000) vote margin (2000 FL presidential election, 2008 MN Senate, 2016 NC governor) are few and far between. Most of us, even if we vote in all major elections, will be part of such a close deciding vote in a major state or national election either one or zero times in our life. Does this mean voting is meaningless? Of course not! Voting is essential to maintaining a strong a vibrant democratic republic. So, while we should always vote when we can, I think we should also be realistic in acknowledging that our individual vote often will not be decisive.
That being said, some people don’t think of ‘make your vote count’ as make your vote be the one deciding vote to push ‘us’ over the top. Some people think of it as, basically, ‘don’t you want to win’? Instead of voting for that no-name who isn’t going to win, why not join ‘our’ side and be on the winning team? That’s fine if you support that candidate, but if you’re passionate about someone else, it’s not really a convincing argument. When the handwriting was on the wall, should a passionate Dole supporter in 1996 have switched to vote for Clinton just to be on the winning side? Should a passionate Mondale supporter have switched to Reagan in 1984 just to be on the winning side? No? Then why should someone who is truly passionate about an independent candidate, in an election where they have serious misgivings about both major party nominees, feel pressured to do the same?
So now, we’ve established that if you have a clear preference among the major candidates, you should vote for the major party candidate, and if you clearly support an independent while having serious misgivings about the major candidates, you should vote for the independent. But sometimes, it’s hard to determine which bucket you fall into in analyzing a particular election. So, what should you do when, effectively, you’re “on the fence about being on the fence”?
I would suggest that if you’re torn in a situation like this about a future election, a good thing to think about is how electoral coalitions are formed, especially as elections move from the primary to the general election, and what that may mean for policy implementation once the winner is sworn into office. By that, I mean the following: what are a candidate’s core beliefs, that they are unlikely to abandon in almost any scenario once elected, and which positions are they taking out of expediency just to get to 50%+1 in a general election? Often times, it is the diehard fans, whose candidate will stay true to their core beliefs, trying to convince ‘other people’, who are flirting with the idea of an independent or third party vote, to vote for that candidate to get then to 50%+1, when the issues of the ‘other people’ are those that said candidate may abandon when push comes to shove and they have to make a difficult vote on a piece of legislation. Which leads to the real opportunity that may exist (and I believe is largely overlooked) when it comes to voting for independent candidates ‘to make your vote count’.
Yes, voting for an independent candidate in a major election is likely not going to result in that candidate winning that election. But, if they get a larger than expected showing in losing, that is likely to get noticed, and prompt some followup questions. Why did they earn such a surprising showing? What issues were they championing that made them surprisingly popular? Could these issues perhaps have relevance in a future election (perhaps this time as part of a major party candidate’s platform)? Is it worth it for a major party to take a look at this candidate in another election for another position (possibly working their way up from a lower position, but this time with the backing of a major party with a better chance to win)? So, in summary, if you’re willing to see the big picture and play the long game, it could very well be that voting for an independent or third party candidate that you truly believe in may be the best way for you to ‘make your vote count.’