It’s Your Ethical Duty to Vote for a Viable Presidential Candidate

Kelly Wondracek
May 21 · 7 min read
Photo by awoodvine, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

The outcome of this November’s presidential election could be easily swayed by ideological purists. These are the people who will either stay at home, write in a candidate, or cast a third-party/independent vote in defense of their “conscience” or their “heart” over ticking the Biden or Trump box.

Here’s the issue: Those who refuse to vote for a viable candidate in favor of idealism typically foster at least one of four illusions.

One, they’re convinced that their candidate of choice is perfect for them and thereby a perfect choice for the whole country, but others are just too brainwashed, un-woke, and sheep-like to see it.

Two, they fail to acknowledge that compromise isn’t just an integral part of everyday life, but integral to our very survival.

Three, they think that a “protest” vote will either inspire the establishment to see things their way, or will make a difference toward the greater good.

Four, they fail to see how rigid idealism can have catastrophic consequences (or they know better, but they deliberately hold a veil between their own actions and those consequences).

Let’s dissect the reality of these illusions, one by one.

Your perfect candidate doesn’t exist.

Everyone is flawed. You are flawed. Your loved ones are flawed. Your favorite celebrities are flawed. And you can be damn sure that your candidate of choice is flawed.

There’s no such thing as a “perfect” candidate because there’s no such thing as a perfect person.

We acknowledge this all the time as we accept the faults of those in our lives, but somehow it’s difficult to imagine great leaders as anything but superhuman.

When it comes to romantic partnerships, very few of us would say, “I’m going to remain single and celibate forever because no one meets my unbendable criteria.” Or, “I’m going to devote my heart to my unattainable crush for the rest of my life, because in my eyes he or she is perfect and no one can come close.” (This, of course, neglects the idea that the unattainable crush is only “perfect” based on the romanticized version that exists in your head — the same way you probably romanticize your candidate.)

Likewise, if you’re a hiring manager, you wouldn’t hold out for a perfect job candidate because the attainable ones don’t fit your flawless mold. Would you really just keep the position vacant indefinitely, even if it means the downfall of your company?

To what degree does “holding out” justify the downfall of your country?

You also need to acknowledge that your vision of perfection doesn’t align with everyone’s reality of perfection. Someone who ticks all the right boxes for you is guaranteed to not tick some or all boxes for everyone. Demanding your own subjective “perfection” is inherently selfish.

Compromises are an essential part of life.

Being a participant in society means making compromises. We compromise each time we patronize imperfect businesses, send our kids to imperfect schools, and sign up for imperfect services (“My cable provider is amazing,” said no one ever). We compromise when we recognize that the alternatives simply won’t do. This means voting for imperfect candidates because we acknowledge that the alternatives are terrifying.

Our very survival depends on compromises. It depends on disappointing trade-offs, and budging when it doesn’t feel good to budge.

November 2020 will boil down to three options. One is Joe Biden. The other is Donald Trump. Your third option is leaving it up to the will of everyone else because you’re basically okay with either. Saying that “I’m not okay with either” won’t make these options magically go away.

By refraining to vote in protest or opting for a nonviable candidate, you technically fall into Option #3. Even if your third-party candidate makes big waves, the result is in favor of Biden or Trump, because that’s how our system currently works. There’s no other rational option because any alternative will contribute to the results of Option #1, Option #2, or Option #3. Unfortunately, there’s no way around it.

You either swallow the red pill voluntarily, swallow the blue pill voluntarily, or eventually have the red or blue pill shoved down your throat.

“Protest” voting is a smug illusion of doing something meaningful.

If you’re like me and you struggle to personally identify with the Republican or Democratic parties as they exist today, you’re not alone. Polls over the last decade confirm that Americans want more choices. Our country is so over the two-party system.

But a “protest” vote isn’t how we change the system, because ultimately your protest only exists in its own little bubble that no one even notices. It’s intangible. “Sending a message” is meaningless if your message only drifts into the ether. (That’s why protesting by staying at home is especially futile; voting isn’t mandatory to begin with, so your protest just blends in with the millions of people who don’t vote out of laziness or complacency.)

You aren’t Harriet Tubman. Her act of refusal stood for human dignity and justice. It was a catalyst for inspiring change. Your protest vote only exists for your smug self-satisfaction rather than a greater purpose that has a chance of yielding a result.

Sure, a process like ranked choice voting (which has been implemented in many local elections across the U.S.) would help make it so prominent third-party candidates didn’t “spoil” elections. It would make it easier to vote with your heart.

So if you want the system to change, advocate for alternatives like these. But attempting to “doom” the election results doesn’t do the country or its people any favors, because it undermines the good parts of democracy that we have going for us today.

When you willfully abstain or cast a protest vote, the message you’re really sending is: “The will of the people of the United States doesn’t align with my personal will. Democracy didn’t work the way I wanted it to this election cycle. So I’m going to protest democracy.”

In other words, democracy should only exist if its outcome coincides with your personal utopian vision.

You’re telling the struggling small business owners: Didn’t vote for my person? Then have fun sinking.

You’re telling children living in squalor: Your parent’s vote didn’t match mine? Well, hope you’re not too hungry, because that’s what you get.

You’re telling minorities who are having their civil rights trampled upon: You voted for him, huh? Well, too bad. Now you get to suffer. Maybe you’ll behave better next time.

Based on the will of the people in our imperfect democratic system today, we’ll have two viable candidates. Everyone else is nonviable. 2019 allowed fringe candidates to enter the space and compete. Some of them had significant traction for a while. But ultimately, the people spoke with their primary votes.

“Throwing off” an election by voting for a third party or independent (and thereby causing the most similar viable candidate to lose) has historically not done anything to influence the “establishment” or shift the system. In fact, if anything, the large amount of votes that went to Ross Perot in 1992 and Ralph Nader in 2000 caused the RNC and DNC to buckle down and devise ways to make it more difficult for third parties and fringe candidates to gain significant leverage.

A vote for your ideologically pure candidate won’t change the outcomes of the Democratic or Republican platform, either. Think Nader or Sanders voters have somehow caused the Democratic platform to shift? In fact, even though Gallup polls show more Democrats identifying as “liberal” than before, their polls also reveal that most Democrats favor a more moderate party.

This could be the most important general election of your life.

In other words, this might not be the best time in history to cling to stubborn ideals or to show the system what an untamed maverick you are. Especially if you’re in a swing state — but even if you aren’t, don’t assume that your state’s fate is sealed.

Now more than ever might be the time you cast a “better than the alternative” vote in order to make your voice count for something big. Because the consequences could be huge.

Very few people say, “I’m going to protest taxes by not paying taxes,” because they’re wise enough to foresee the consequences. Forget fines — in some circumstances, tax evasion means jail. And it may mean your children have to spend five years without a mother or father. (But you really stuck it to the IRS, right? Maybe now they’ll reconsider everything!)

No, you won’t get thrown in jail for staying home on election day. But if your main purpose this November is to express dissatisfaction with the viable pool, then chances are you’re not considering long-term consequences for yourself, your loved ones, and your nation if too many people do the same.

I challenge you to ask yourself honestly how bad things have to get before you’d be willing to budge on your ideological purity.

What if a war started and tens of millions of people died? Might you budge then?

What if your constitutional rights were stripped away? Might you bend a little?

If your conscience still feels clean imagining those scenarios, then get hyperbolic and think about absolute worst-case scenarios. Like an apocalypse. Like the U.S. being taken over by another nation and all citizens being forced into concentration camps. Like the end of humanity.

If “voting with your heart” produces catastrophic outcomes for the country, can you really say that you voted with a clean conscience?

Maybe your very world will come crumbling around you. You lose your job, and the things that matter to you to the most, and maybe even some of your rights. Then, would you honestly be able to say with dignity, “At least I didn’t waver an inch?”

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