The Power of the Wasted Vote
“I’d rather vote for what I want and not get it, than vote for what I don’t want and get it.” — Eugene V. Debs
A common theme during election cycles is the idea that people who do not vote for one of the major party candidates are wasting their vote. This idea is passed around so frequently and casually that it is likely that many of the people proposing it never really stopped to think about it. Unfortunately, those accused of wasting their vote often mount a meek defense, acknowledging that they may indeed be wasting their vote, but it’s okay because they’re voting their conscience. Aside from the condescension inherent in telling another their vote is wasted, this logic lacks a basic understanding of what voting means. Voting is more than a simple act of math; voting is people actively taking responsibility for choosing their leaders and representatives. Therefore, you do not vote for who you think will win, you vote for who you think should win. The reality is the “wasted” vote has value, it wields power; it is intrinsically the same as the vote cast for the winner.
The Myth of the Wasted Vote
Major candidates, buoyed by many of their supporters, try to paint third party candidates as sideshow acts that deflect from the real show. This characterization is not only harmful to democracy, but also untrue. Harmful, because it is attempting to silence perfectly valid points of view. Untrue because the Electoral College and 12th Amendment guarantees that all votes hold the same potential, especially in the event those votes return a plurality rather than a majority. The elections of 1824 and 2000 both highlight the importance of every vote. Meanwhile, the candidacies of George Wallace (1968), John B. Anderson (1980) and Ross Perot (1992) provide some examples of how third party candidates pose credible challenges to major party platforms. Though the outcomes varied, each of these examples illustrates the importance of all candidates in a national election.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines the verb waste in the following way: to use or expend carelessly, extravagantly or to no purpose; to expend on an unappreciative recipient; to fail to make full or good use of; or to deliberately dispose of something. There is a suggestion implicit in these definitions that whatever is being wasted has value. After all, can one really waste something that has no value to begin with? As such, the trope “your candidate cannot win; therefore, your vote is wasted” is a non-sequitor. It assumes that there is only value in the votes cast for the winner. While many individuals thoughtlessly pass on this logic, the true purveyors of this logic are shrewd individuals. Telling people that they are wasting their vote is a fear tactic. And since many people are more motivated to avoid failure than they are motivated to achieve success it is a sound tactic. Regardless of the motivation, this logic is dangerous. Feeling powerless and being motivated by fear are traits more commonly associated with totalitarian regimes, not democracies.
Every vote has value. One can vote for the eventual loser, one can vote for a candidate who reneges on their promises, one can even vote for an individual that appears to have little chance of winning, but none of these actions are tantamount to wasting one’s vote. Conversely, if you’re only voting for the candidate that is most likely to win, and in doing so, voting against your own beliefs then you are truly wasting your vote.
More than Statistics
While each vote has statistical importance, there is more to a vote than simple mathematics. The election is not a horse race, it is not about picking the winners and the losers — it is about participating in democracy. That is why you do not simply vote for who you think will win, you vote for who you believe will do the best job based on the issues that are important to you. Your vote is your voice, if you are merely voting for the candidate most likely to win you are self-censoring.
Along with fear tactics, people try to obscure the voting process by linking a vote for a third party candidate to a vote for one of the two major candidates. Reference the often heard quip that a vote for Gary Johnson or Jill Stein is a really a vote for Donald Trump (replace Trump with Clinton if you happen to be speaking with a Trump supporter). The reality is uncannily simple: a vote for Gary Johnson is a vote for Gary Johnson, likewise the case with Jill Stein. It’s a vote for that party, for what that candidate stands for, and for what you believe in. It really is that simple. Sure, there are statistical effects to these votes. Most notably, the scenario that follows if no one candidate reaches the necessary 270 votes to secure the Presidency. However, that just shows how absurd the concept of a wasted vote really is — either your vote matters or it doesn’t.
Aside from the statistical effects, the myth of the wasted vote negatively impacts the overall outcome of the election and the candidacy of the elected representatives. The people give an elected official a mandate; however, when that mandate is false it hamstrings their ability for success. Elected leaders who win by a thin margin carry out policies differently than those who win with a commanding lead. Furthermore, voting for a candidate who does not lobby for your issues not only silences your voice, it serves to undermine the elected leaders term by issuing them what amounts to a false mandate. In this scenario, the leader appears to have a larger support base than they actually do, which undermines their ability to accomplish tasks. This situation is exacerbated by down-ballot elections that oftentimes present as a backlash against the Presidency. When congressional races subsequently return contrary results and hamstring the president’s agenda, the system of checks and balances becomes a system of checks and checkmates.
From Either/Or to Neither/Nor, the Power of Influence
The presidential election is more than an either/or proposition. Certainly, third party candidates face an uphill battle before they will be seated in the oval office. However, that does not mean that votes for those candidates are wasted votes; every vote has the power to influence. Third-party candidates challenge the dual party system and add alternate viewpoints that can lead to a more robust national discussion. Democratic and Republican candidates routinely co-opt issues that third party candidates lobby. People don’t need to justify their votes, regardless of their choice. Every vote cast has the power to change the direction of the national conversation; some just have a more direct impact than others.