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The Third Party Conundrum: Are You Throwing Your Vote Away?

It’s election year again in these here United States. While partisans may relish seeing their respective teams dress up in red and blue, for those of us who have grown weary of the usual Republocrats and Dempublicans on offer, the tempting choice of voting for a third party often comes to mind.

But should you lend one of these third-party contenders your vote when it comes time to cast your ballot in November?

Greens, Libertarians, Constitutional, Socialist Workers — like the masses of Lilliput, these other parties are dwarfed by our two-party giants and make do with whatever electoral scraps are left over. On occasion, they’ll make a small breakthrough such as capturing a city council seat somewhere or even a seat in a state legislature. Very, very rarely they may even capture a governorship if they have a celebrity running on their ticket. Like eager start-ups hungry to make it big, third parties strive to make a difference in the political arena by making the most of their very limited resources.

They are, in fact, scrappy fighters who use retail politics to their best advantage for the simple reason that that is all they can afford. These parties appear on the Internet, on placards borne by dedicated individuals and on campaign literature left on your front door or car window. Rarely do they advertise in the media and, indeed, part of their charm is in just how poor they happen to be. For a political system utterly corrupted by big money, the poverty of third parties is a major attraction.

Their ideological purity — something else these parties offer hand-in-hand with low-quality campaign leaflets pasted together in someone’s garage — is also an attractive quality. Again, for the romantic idealists amongst us who really do believe in truth, justice and the American way, the sincerity of third-party candidates is a refreshing alternative to the well-honed, focus-group-tested, PR-man-approved political messages of our two major parties.

Indeed, most third-party candidates come across as the bastard love children of a homespun, log-splitting Abraham Lincoln and a gun-toting, cherry-tree-chopping George Washington that can neither lie nor ever be corrupted. Principle is what they stand for, and if you give them even the barest second of your time, you will quickly get an earful from these missionaries who, like Moses in the desert, wander the political landscape in search of the Promised Land. “Vote for us,” they proclaim, “and things can finally change.”

Mostly just potential

Sadly, the potential of third party candidates in American politics is mostly just that. Squeezed by the logic of our electoral laws that permit only one representative to be elected from each district, our first-past-the-post system of winner-take-all elections means that while a third party candidate may capture our hearts, we are left holding the bag if he or she doesn’t win, as, quite often, our least-favored candidate goes on to win the election.

This has been demonstrated many, many times in the past in a number of elections up and down our political system. Recently and most famously, for instance, left-wing populist and consumer advocate Ralph Nader ran for president under the Green Party label in 2000 and garnered just enough support from the progressive left to hand the White House to their arch nemesis, George W. Bush. Similarly, in 1992, the defection of many Reagan Democrats from the GOP to Ross Perot, the Texas billionaire gadfly who ran for president as the Reform Party candidate, handed the election to Bill Clinton and the Democrats.

The unfortunate fact is that no matter how much third-party candidates deny it, this spoiler effect is very real. The harsh reality of our system is that whoever gets 51 percent of the vote come election day is declared the winner. Barring major electoral reform that radically alters the way in which we conduct our elections and the mechanisms by which we select representatives from a district, the cruel fact is that a vote not cast for a candidate who is acceptable, though imperfect, but still likely to win, is effectively a vote cast for his or her opponent.

Thus, though your heart may say Green, a vote cast for the Green Party candidate is inevitably an indirect vote cast for the Republican. Likewise, if your heart says Libertarian, a vote cast for the Libertarian is, also inevitably, a vote indirectly cast for the Democrat. No one likes this system, especially not idealists and the third-party candidates who court them, but it exists nonetheless, is real and has to be contended with. Life is full of things we don’t like and must necessarily accommodate ourselves to, and America’s crappy electoral system just happens to be one of them.

Adapting to the system

So, should idealists just give up? Not at all, but understanding how the system works and adapting yourself accordingly is the sign of a mature political mind that is willing to take the pragmatic steps necessary to really have your vote count. Rather than wasting a vote in a “pox on both houses” protest vote for a Green or a Libertarian candidate, idealists must be smarter and work harder if they want to see real change.

With that in mind, here are three things idealists can do:

First, understand that elections are won by money and organization, which, in turn, influences voter turnout when it comes time to cast ballots. Third parties usually do not have enough of either to win anything close to national or statewide office, so a vote cast for the Green Party candidate for governor or the Libertarian Party candidate for Congress isn’t going to accomplish much beyond showing support for your party of choice and protesting the status quo. It may feel good to cast such votes, but that’s about it.

A better alternative is to pick and choose where and when to vote third party and to give as much money as possible to them. Here, voting for and giving money to candidates for local offices lower down on the ticket becomes a good place to strategically support the Green or Libertarian Parties. These races are often won by much closer margins, and a good candidate with sufficient money and skill in retail politics has a fair chance of beating one of the two-party candidates who lazily expect to not have to fight too hard to win.

Splitting a ticket and money in this way gives a voter the leeway to support the “safer” Republican or Democratic candidate running for more important offices while also giving third-party contenders a chance for local offices.

This last part is especially important because having candidates win office and actually govern — even if it is at the level of dog catcher — is key. It gives both candidates and parties experience and lets them build a reputation to run on in later elections. It also serves notice to voters that third-party candidates aren’t just flakes — they, too, can govern responsibly if given the chance.

Second, quite often the allure of a third party is not just that it is not a Republican or Democrat, but a third party’s commitment to a set of ideals that alienated voters who might otherwise cast a ballot for a Republican or a Democrat see as not being upheld in either of our two major parties. Green voters, in other words, vote Green because they like what Green Party candidates stand for, and the same goes for Libertarians. They vote their values, and their values are best reflected by these third parties.

The reason our two major parties don’t often reflect the values of Green or Libertarian voters is because they aren’t forced to when real opportunities to influence the Democrats or the Republicans actually occur. This happens not during general elections — which are quite often anyway predetermined due to gerrymandering and demographics — but during the primary elections that parties use to select their candidates for the general election. It is then, and in the campaign to win the primary, that influence and money are most felt and best used for effect.

Thus, if you lean Green and want to see the Democrats lean that way, too, then your best bet is to get involved in the primary process to get the most Green-looking Democratic candidate selected as the party’s official nominee for the general election. The same strategy applies to Libertarians. The way to influence the Democratic and Republican parties most effectively is in the intra-party contests where the various factions of our two, catch-all major parties fight it out. If you aren’t involved in this fight, though, don’t expect the resulting candidate to necessarily reflect your own political beliefs. And if you don’t believe this works, just look at how the religious right and the tea party have taken over the Republican Party.

Third, if you are really serious about seeing third parties being more fairly represented in our politics, then you’re going to have to engage in the hard work of reforming both the ways in which American elections are conducted and the mechanisms that translate votes into how and how many representatives are chosen to serve. Above all, this means organizing for things like campaign finance reform, simpler and less expensive access to the ballot, easier voting and — most important — changing our first-past-the-post system to another system that allows for more and more representative elected officials to be put into office.

Plan your votes and politics

None of this is easy, of course, but if you are a disaffected Republican thinking of voting Libertarian or a frustrated Democrat starting to lean Green, then understand that your choice will have consequences that will mostly benefit your ideological opponents. This doesn’t mean voting for a third party is irresponsible, but it does suggest that if you want the views of those parties and the parties themselves to be more successful, it is going to take a lot more than a protest vote cast in their favor on election day.

This is because politics isn’t easy and, as the saying goes, isn’t bean bag, either. Elections, as much else in life, aren’t given to the lazy, the unorganized, the under-financed or the uninformed.

If you aren’t involved in the game that goes on before ballots are cast, then you aren’t really playing. Pretending otherwise by casting a third-party vote doesn’t change that fact. A vote for a third party on election day is, therefore, the last play of the game, not the first, so plan your votes, and your politics, accordingly.

(The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial opinions or policy of BAMSouth.com. This column was originally printed on the Mint Press News website at www.mintpress.com and is reprinted with permission)

Jeffrey Cavanaugh

Jeffrey Cavanaugh

Contributing Writer
Jeffrey Cavanaugh holds a Ph.D in political science with a specialization in International Relations from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Formerly an assistant professor of political science and public administration at Mississippi State University, he writes on global affairs and international economics for AFK Insider, Mint Press News and BAMSouth.com and lives in Metairie, Louisiana.
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