Why I’m Not Voting for Jill Stein — No, this isn’t About Clinton or Trump

There is today profound disappointment among Bernie Sanders supporters. Like many of you reading this, I worked hard on his campaign and I share the sense of frustration I know many are experiencing. I also know that many are tempted right now, despite Bernie’s clear messages to his supporters, to join the campaign of Jill Stein running as the Green Party of the United States (GPUS) candidate.

Let me start by saying I like and respect Jill Stein. She has more integrity than any of the other presidential candidates who’ll be on the ballot in November. I also strongly support the platform she’s running on. But I won’t be voting for her and would encourage others to consider my reasoning on this.

Before I go there, lest you think me a trolling Democrat, I should establish my bona fides in terms of Green Party activism. I got involved with the Green Party back in the late 1980s. I was an early member of the Columbia (Missouri) Sweetgum Greens, helping to elect Matt Harline to the Columbia City Council (in a non-partisan election). I was then, in 1992, a founding member of the Missouri Green Party, and worked on Jeff Barrow’s 1992 Congressional campaign, and his 1994 bid for a seat on the Boone County Commission.

I was also quite active for several years with the Green Party of Central Missouri and was a key organizer working on Keith Brekhus’ 2002 Congressional campaign. I have worked on at least three Green Party ballot qualification petition drives, personally collecting cumulatively somewhere in the neighborhood of 6,000–7,000 signatures. I have knocked on many hundreds of doors on behalf of Green candidates and spent literally hundreds of hours in meetings discussing strategy and planning everything from news conferences, to voter outreach, from fundraising to guerilla theater and other visible actions to advance our agenda.

I appreciate my friends who are still active Greens, and in no way wish to trash them, their hard work or their very good intentions. I left the party, however, due to profound differences over strategy, and that’s the essence of what I want to share with you.

Our Flawed Electoral System

Before discussing strategy, it’s necessary to touch on some features of our electoral system that make it very hard for the Greens, or any other party outside of the Democrat-Republican duopoly, to become a force capable of electing candidates.

At the top of the list: we have winner-take-all elections. Unlike most contemporary, multi-party democracies which have some form of proportional representation, our system is set up so that whoever gets the most votes gets 100 percent of the representation. For our legislatures (state and federal) we have single-member districts, and whoever is “first past the post” gets the seat, and everyone else is out in the cold. Unlike parliamentary systems, in the U.S. the executive (governor or president) is elected separately, and whoever comes in first gets the whole enchilada.

A second very difficult aspect of our system is that it only takes a plurality, not a majority to win. Despite what you were likely told in grade school (i.e. Democracy means majority rule.), one does not need to get half the votes plus one, but simply needs to get the most votes.

If there only are two candidates, these are one and the same. But, as soon as three or more candidates are running, there is a significant chance someone will win with only minority support. There are, in general, no runoffs, and this leads to what is called the “Spoiler Effect.” This is the single factor that makes it extremely difficult for any party, other than the Ds and the Rs, to gain more than a toehold under our system.

The success of the Greens, the Libertarians or any other “third party” tends to be self-limiting as the more successful such a party is, the less likely those who voted for their candidate will be pleased with the outcome.

Basically, the Greens — despite their slogan “Neither left, nor right, but forward” — are a party to the left of the Democrats. Their supporters are not happy with the centrist positions of many Dems, but are even more troubled, in general, with the positions staked out by the GOP.

If the Greens do well, meaning well for a third party, they generally won’t elect their candidate, but, by splitting the votes of liberal-centrist Dems and leftie Greens, they might allow the Republicans to win elections that otherwise would have gone to the Dems. This could be cured by enacting a runoff system, like Instant Runoff Voting, but this is slow in coming, and the Greens have failed to come to grips with this problem, and certainly haven’t made adopting IRV a top-tier issue.

Real World Experience

The best known run under the Green Party banner was Ralph Nader’s presidential campaign in the year 2000. No one expected Nader to win the White House, but he was aiming for five percent of the vote, which would have qualified him for public financing for a 2004 race. On election day, he fell far short of even this modest goal, garnering 2.74 percent of the popular vote nationwide.

This said, the votes for Nader were significantly greater than George W. Bush’s margin of victory in two states, Florida and New Hampshire, either of which, in Al Gore’s column, would have made him the winner. Thus, many liberals, and Democrats in general, blamed Nader, or those who voted for him, for handing the election to Bush.

While I can make a strong argument that Nader was not responsible for Gore’s defeat, the key point is that he was widely perceived this way, and, when he ran again in 2004 many of his former supporters shunned him and his support plummeted from 2.74 percent to 0.38 percent.

This is exactly the self-limiting effect already alluded to. The more successful the Greens are in races like this, the less likely their supporters are to be pleased with the results or to continue to vote Green in the future. Similar situations have occurred in New Mexico where “successful” Green campaigns drawing support in double digits led to two Congressional seats that had been held by Democrats go to Republicans who scored fewer than half the votes, but enough to win in a three-way race. Similarly, the New Mexico Greens lost ground in subsequent years.

Lessons Not Yet Learned

Despite twenty years of unsuccessfully running presidential campaigns, the Greens have failed to recognize that the focus on the presidency is misplaced. Virtually all Greens know that come January 20, 2017 it will not be Jill Stein who is inaugurated our next president. Yet the presidential race is where the Greens put the overwhelming majority of their time, energy and resources.

By pursuing this strategy, they end up alienating their potential base. Many of us who supported and worked for Bernie Sanders embrace the Green platform, but most of us are realistic enough to know that a Green won’t win the presidency and that a really successful Green run at that office is likely to put a Republican in the White House. Very few of us who are small “g” greens are willing to embrace a big “G” Green Party that lacks strategic vision.

What Might Work Instead
 The Green Party needs to build itself from the grassroots base up, not from the top down. One of the Ten Key Values the Greens articulate is “Decentralization.” They really need to apply this to their own organizing model.

They can do this best if they choose which races to field candidates in strategically. Races can be run for two very valid purposes. First, obviously, is they can be engaged with the hopes of winning. Second, in districts where winning is not likely achievable, they can be run for the purposes of raising awareness around issues and engaging citizens so as to build a strong participatory base.

As already noted, given the electoral system, races that are likely to be close between the Dems and the GOP are not ideal for Greens to run candidates in. Most potential Green voters won’t support a Green when this means taking the risk of seeing a Republican win a race that is in play. Most will hold their noses and vote for a Dem, even if they’re a centrist.

On the other hand, there are actually many districts in which only one of the major parties is running a candidate. This includes urban districts that are overwhelmingly Democratic, and rural ones that are GOP strongholds. Running a Green in such a district involves zero spoiler risk, and thus is something many liberals and progressives not currently Greens could get behind. And, who knows, if a strong candidate is fielded, she or he might actually win on election day. If not, they will at least come out of the campaign more seasoned, with name recognition and capable of doing better next time out.

And then there are districts where both parties have candidates on the ballot, but, due to demographics and gerrymandering, one party is seen as having a lock on the election. Often there is an incumbent who is running for reelection who is heavily favored to win. The other candidate is really only token opposition, with very limited party resources being expended on their behalf. In districts such as these, Greens might have only a tiny chance at winning — albeit a better chance than they have of taking the presidency — but they are afforded the opportunity to raise issues, recruit members and hone activist skills. And they likely won’t drive away their potential base in the process, the way a strong run at the presidency is likely to.

Building a Base and Power Through Strategic Vision

The issue of the Greens’ potential base is not one to be ignored. While tens of millions embrace the values of the Green Party, in 2012 only 469,501 citizens voted for Stein for president. This was only 0.36% of the popular vote, less than half of one percent. While she is today doing better than this in the polls, as election day approaches, if the election is close, many of those who today say they will support her are likely to fall away and return to the Democratic fold. And if this isn’t the case, and the GOP again wins the election by margins less than the Green vote in key states, we will only see more anger directed at the Greens who’ll be widely viewed as spoilers.

Another aspect of developing a strategic approach would be for the Greens to engage the Democrats. As the Green Party grows stronger, they can negotiate with the Dems and win some key concessions in exchange for standing down in critical races. First among these should be getting the Dems to endorse and support electoral reform that would, at a minimum, include support for Instant Runoff Voting. Besides this, in exchange for not running candidates in districts the Dems have prioritized, the Greens could potentially get the Dems to stand down in others where the Greens have a real chance of winning. In some states cross-endorsement or fusion voting is allowed and others might be convinced to adopt it, if the Democrats would embrace it.

All this is in the future, of course, as today the Greens have next to nothing to bargain with. But with a strategic vision and leadership, it could potentially be done.

Or the alternative, of course, is to do what Sen. Sanders has done this year, run insurgent campaigns within the Democratic Party.

Both are potentially productive strategies, and they are not mutually exclusive. Indeed a left-leaning contingent within the Democratic Party could choose to ally itself with the Greens. But this sort of inside-outside strategy is certainly not possible if the Greens continue to focus on running presidential candidates who have zero chance of winning, and are engaging in a high stakes gamble that could not only lead to a GOP victory, a huge loss for the country, but also to the loss of whatever support the Greens may have rebuilt in the 16 years since the Nader debacle.

So, I say to all reading this, if you are serious about wanting change, please recognize that this is not all about one election cycle. We need to be in this for the long haul, as Bernie has pointed out repeatedly.

If you think the Green Party is the vehicle, consider how you might influence the GPUS leadership to rethink their focus on the presidency.

And if you’ve been working for change via the Sanders campaign within the Democratic Party and have hopes for moving the party in a progressive direction, again, this will take time, commitment and hard work for years to come.

Whether working through the DP, the GP or outside of party structures on progressive issue campaigns, all this work is tremendously important and valuable, and it must be approached in a strategic and committed fashion. Thanks for considering this, and for the good and important work you do to promote a brighter future for all.

“If there is no struggle, there is no progress.”

“Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

— Frederick Douglass