There is no such thing as a protest vote. Only good and bad choices.
It is starting to look as though the “protest vote” phase of the 2016 election is over. Gary Johnson, who was polling nationally at 9% in mid-September, according to FiveThirtyEight, has fallen to 5.6%. It appears people are coming to their senses.
Yet on Friday, Edward Snowden, a towering figure of the left, sent out a call to unhappy voters that they should not give up:
It seems this issue of using a vote as a form of protest is not going away, and it seems many voters––particularly members of my generation––are convinced there’s some value to be found here. There’s not, and the myth needs to be dispelled before disgruntled voters do something really, really stupid.
It’s worth noting, off the bat, how silly Snowden’s logic is. One of the reasons Hillary Clinton has opened up such a wide lead––and thus it has become “safe” to vote for a third party candidate, according to Snowden––is that many Johnson and Jill Stein voters, as well as independents, have started to flock to Clinton’s campaign. This is like saying, in the words of Justice Ginsburg, you should “throw away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”
The response usually goes something like this: “It’s my vote. Telling us to fall in line is anti-Democratic.” This is your typical straw-man argument. Nobody is saying that. If you’re voting for Gary Johnson because you agree with him, that’s not a protest vote, it’s a vote. Go right ahead. (This also has its problems — Johnson has a 0% chance of being president — so to vote for him is to disadvantage whichever viable candidate you prefer.)
The problem occurs when you chose to vote for a candidate you wouldn’t otherwise vote for (and this is happening a lot in 2016, as young people are flocking to Johnson, a candidate who doesn’t think that climate change is an issue because we can always move to another planet). That’s not protest. Rather, that is you deliberately disadvantaging the candidate you think should be president, to the advantage of the candidate you don’t think should be president. That is not asking anyone to fall in line. Calling it out as irrational is not anti-Democratic. It is a statement of fact. It is math. It is counting.
Granted, this is usually not a problem. A few votes––or even a few thousand––are not going to swing an election, and they won’t in 2016. But here’s the difference this time around: Donald Trump is likely going to contest the results. He’s made that clear. For legal and financial reasons, it will become more and more difficult for Trump to go down that path with every additional vote, and state, that Clinton can grab. To deprive Clinton of a vote she otherwise would have gotten in this cycle is not just to increase (however insignificantly) Trump’s chances of winning, but also it is to strengthen his case for depriving Clinton of her legitimacy as president and ability to lead. It makes it more likely that Trump will succeed in his quest to further damage our democratic institutions.
Yes, Clinton is most likely going to win. But states like Arizona, North Carolina, Florida, Iowa and Ohio could be very close and together could swing the election. If a fair amount of voters decide to protest Clinton, automatic recounts could be mandated by state law, it could become viable for Trump to fund his own recounts, or it could just keep the results close enough to cast doubt.
Either way, the resulting limbo would not just last weeks or months, but also it would embolden Trump’s sure-to-be far-reaching claims of fraud and collusion to the point that it could undermine President Clinton’s legitimacy. This is not far off. Trump would say every law she signs is not really law. Her Supreme Court nominees, and all the Court’s decisions, could be challenged for years. Governors, fearing being thrown out of office, could choose not to enforce any new federal law. The possibilities are as endless as they are terrifying.
In a democracy, we narrow down the options and you vote for your most-preferred choice. That’s how it works. If you are claiming this somehow leaves open room for protest, what exactly are you asking for? A new election? No election at all? Capitulation to your demands over the will of the people?
Votes are choices. They are real, and they have consequences. The possibilities I’ve outlined here are real. The choice to vote for a third-party candidate makes those possibilities more likely; the choice to vote for Clinton is the only way to make them less likely. That is a matter of fact. That is your choice. There is no revolution coming, no way to dispense that reality. There is no opportunity to protest. Only a choice.