In 2016, at least for a while, America fell in love with Ken Bone — the man in the red sweater. Bone was an undecided voter in that election who had stood up at the Presidential debate to ask a question about energy policy. Part of it was the ludicrousness of the situation. How could anybody be undecided?
A couple weeks ago, we finally learned the outcome of his deliberations. Bone had voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. He announced at the same time that he had just cast his ballot for Libertarian Jo Jorgensen in 2020. As you can imagine, furor ensued. Partisans viciously ripped Bone for both “voting for Biden” and “voting for Trump.” There were proclamations that he had wasted his vote — somehow, his vote counted for Biden, Trump, nobody, and presumably also Jorgensen all at the same time. One can imagine that quotes about bystanders or fascism were thrown about liberally.
Third-party voter shaming has reached new heights as we approach the 2020 election. To be fair, vitriol of all kinds is up. By all accounts, this election may be one of the most important of our lifetime. But voters seem to believe that as awful as the other side is, there’s a special place in hell reserved for third-party voters. Fundamentally, this is based on fallacies.
Bone is an Illinois voter and noted to one of his detractors that he would give her the lease to his house if Trump won the state. Casting a vote for a candidate who is obviously going to win your state does nothing to “save democracy.” Some partisans have pointed out that this year requires a landslide to be legitimate. But an extra vote in California or New York will do nothing to shape the composition of the Senate — whether or not there's an electoral college landslide — or even just the public perception of the race. A landslide in America means winning more states. Third-party votes in safe states don’t affect that at all. It’s simply selfish to ask someone else to sacrifice their vote to juice up a popular vote count that isn’t likely to be close and that no one pays attention to anyway.
To many Democrats, visions of Ralph Nader ’55 in 2000 lead to the perception that most third-party voters are disgruntled leftists who’d prefer the Democrats over the Republicans but vote third-party anyway. In reality, most third-party voters, whether they are libertarians, anarchists, moderates, or centrists, have priorities outside of the main two party candidates. It’s not inappropriate to argue with these people that they’re wrong. However, people on both sides tend to assume that their side is entitled to these votes without doing any convincing, since surely everyone has to agree that one side is worse than the other. If everyone did agree, there would be no point in having elections
Lastly, the idea of a “wasted vote” is not real. If we define a wasted vote as a vote for a candidate who doesn’t have a realistic shot of winning, almost every vote for a minority party candidate in a safe state is a wasted one. For that matter, voting for the dominant candidate is wasted, too — it won’t swing the election. Outside the local level, the chance of one vote swinging the election at all is miniscule. On the other hand, third-party candidates often have more achievable targets. If a Presidential candidate wins 5 percent of the popular vote, their party will get federal matching funds, saving thousands of dollars on ballot access and possibly increasing their platform for future elections. A Green-leaning voter may choose to cast their vote towards getting the Green Party to this 5 percent threshold rather than casting a vote for an inevitable outcome in California. It’s hard to make the case that this is a wasted vote — if anything, it’s the only way to not waste your vote.
There will be people who do prefer one candidate over another, who live in a swing state, and whose preferred third-party candidate has no hope of securing ballot access. Surely it’s appropriate to give such people a bonk to the head and shout, “How can you be so shortsighted to vote third-party in such a critical election?!” But don’t you think they’ve thought about that? I’d imagine that in return, they would give you a bonk on the head and retort, “How can you be so shortsighted to run such an unappealing candidate in such a critical election?” People have different priorities. If you want someone’s vote, you have to convince them that that vote would do the most good, instead of acting entitled or sanctimonious.
Third parties have done incredible things over American history. It was a third party that rose up and ended slavery. It was a third party that pushed the Democrats to the left in 1896, eventually leading to the New Deal. Ross Perot put important issues on the table that became mainstream over the ensuing years. And the system is patently rigged against third parties by making ballot access, debate access and forum participation next to impossible. Most third-party candidates are patriots who are genuinely trying to give voters a real choice and talk about issues that they care about.
Most importantly, voter shaming doesn’t work. It doesn’t work with people of the other party. It certainly doesn’t work for third-party voters when your arguments boil down to “I don’t care about your issues, now shut up and cast a vote for my candidate that probably won’t matter.”
This point is more important than ever on college campuses. There’s a stereotype of third-party voters as idealistic young people who don’t understand how the world works and put their principles above their country. Many students may feel tempted to push back on that stereotype by voting for a major party and shaming their peers that don’t. In reality, it’s the third-party critics who have never considered fighting for a more just system and instead choose to belittle people fighting the good fight against a behemoth that deserves our scorn. Even if we choose to vote for a major party, it’s incumbent upon all of us to read the platforms of the third-party candidates and listen to their supporters.
Like many people who are perennially interested in third-party candidates, I have chosen to cast my vote this year for a major party candidate. I didn’t do so out of fear — I live in a safe state. I’m also unhappy that I may contribute to diminished ballot access for my preferred third party. But I’ve simply grown to like one of the major candidates. I think he’ll make a good President in 2021. But I absolutely wouldn’t shame someone in my place who didn’t make that decision. Try to convince? Maybe. But never shame.
Rohit Narayanan is a first-year from McLean, Va. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org