Thinking it Through


I seem to have rattled a cage or two the other day with some posts on social media about the election. Not surprising, I guess; it's a pretty charged issue considering the extreme consequences that have already started to unfold. But the cage-rattling came about because I referenced (mostly via link) third-party "protest" votes.

I'm acquainted with several people who were in the "I can't support Hillary no matter what" camp and who intended to vote third-party in protest. I don't know if they actually did or not, but hundreds of thousands of other people did. And I remain unclear on why. Sure, I know the standard answers: "Neither of the major candidates is good enough for me" is what they all boil down to, and if any substance is given to support that conclusion, it generally fails to stand up to even minor scrutiny. "Hillary is just as dishonest as Trump," for example, or "the DNC cheated Bernie out of the nomination and therefore Hillary is illegitimate," or my favorite, "both parties are essentially the same" — all of which are demonstrably false without even expending much effort.

But those details are beside my larger point. What I'm really wondering is, why are so many people essentially abdicating their responsibility to vote by casting a "protest" ballot? In Michigan alone, tens of thousands cast ballots that just left the section on President blank, which is slightly easier for me to understand; I think it's beyond foolish and irresponsible in this particular case, but I understand the logic of "I don't like any of these options so I vote for none." It's the idea that a "protest vote" for someone like Jill Stein or Gary Johnson is any different that throws me.

Let's think it through, shall we? The premise seems to be this: The Republicans are running candidate A, who is unacceptable. The Democrats are running candidate B, who is also objectionable. One of them will win no matter what. But rather than take a hard look and make a decision about whether, on balance, I prefer A to B or B to A, I will instead cast my vote for candidate C, a fringe figure who represents one or two of my views in strong stead while being severely unqualified on the whole and who has zero chance of winning. That either A or B will actually become President, and that the repercussions of that result will be gigantic, is less important to me than voicing my protest over the two major candidates.

(Or, I will instead vote for candidate D of the fringe party because I support the fringe party and want to give it more influence. This is ridiculous — the Green Party, for instance, has so little presence today that adding a vote to its minuscule showing in a presidential election will do nothing to affect its influence. If you want to build up the Green Party, work on it from the bottom up, not the top down; get Greens elected to city and county councils, mayorships, then state legislatures, eventually sending a Green or two to Congress. Then you've got a presence building. It doesn't work starting at the top.)

But what are you protesting? The nomination of someone you object to? How does that protest work? In the case of 2016 and Jill Stein, it's reasonable to assume that protest votes for her were protesting the Democratic nomination of Hillary Clinton, so what constitutes a successful outcome? It seems to me that the only possible goal of protesting Hillary Clinton with a vote for someone else is that someone else win the election. "I object to Hillary's nomination, therefore I will protest with a vote for Jill Stein, showing that the Democrats should have nominated someone more liberal. This will be heard and possibly be influential when Hillary loses." Right? I mean, if she wins, the protest will fall on deaf ears, won't it? So the goal of the protest requires her to lose. (Protest votes for Gary Johnson are harder to break down, they might be in protest of either Clinton or Trump, but the point is the same, it can only work as a protest if the one you're protesting loses.)

Then there's the "safe state" caveat. The "I prefer candidate B to win, but since I live in a state that will surely go to B anyway, I can safely vote for candidate C to voice my objection." How does that work, exactly? Who hears that protest? What becomes of it? Your state might be "safe" for B, but if you narrow the gap between A and B enough you can make it less safe for the next time 'round and give A's party a better shot — C's influence is still nothing, but now B's party, which you ultimately prefer to A's, may be more vulnerable to A's party, which you dislike.


Am I wrong? How can a protest vote be effective otherwise? What's its point if not to help defeat the one being protested?

And I don't want to hear the "this way I can vote my conscience" bullshit argument, either. Your conscience isn't served by casting a ballot for someone that won't get more than a tiny fraction of the vote and doesn't send any kind of message that will be heard. Your conscience is there to tell you not to do something that might make you feel good but will hurt others, and it can distinguish between the two possible winners. Even in cases where it truly is a case of choosing the lesser of two evils, one of them is less evil.

The bottom line is that protest votes mean the voter doesn't care which of the two possible winners wins, that s/he is fine with either result. And in this particular election, I can't see how anyone can view the two candidates as equally good or equally bad. Even those that hate them both hate one of them more. I don't actually believe that third-party voters in 2016 didn't care who won, that if pressed, they wouldn't find they preferred one over the other. Yet, here we are.

Maybe the system is broken. Maybe we'd be better off with a kind of parliamentary setup that gives representation to minor parties, or maybe things would improve under the current system if we had a third major party. But, for now anyway, we have the system we have. And we are in real trouble because of how this election turned out.

Third-party voters are not the sole reason we have President-Elect VonClownstick. There were many causes of this nightmare and I don't want liberals to fight among themselves placing blame on each other for the corruption and criminality to come, especially since the news media, the FBI, the Russians, and plenty of other factors (not to mention actual Trump acolytes) played bigger roles. But I do want us all, liberal and conservative alike, to use our heads and think critically when it comes to elections and not ignore the big picture.

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