[Note: This article will also appear in the Macalester Review].
[Secondary Note, 4/3/2012: Since writing this article a long time ago I have since rethought some of these arguments. In general, there are many advantages to working within the two party system, considering the unworkability of everybody voting in the manner described in this piece and the resulting inability to form a meaningful electoral coalition. Still, I think I articulated an interesting perspective in this piece that is worth reading.]
When you have to vote for the lesser of two evils, voting can give you a dirty feeling. Take our last three presidential elections. In 2000, 96.3% of voters supported a major party candidate for President of the United States. In 2004, the figure jumped to 99%. In 2008, the numbers were relatively unchanged at 98.6%.
But what did the country gain from its steadfast support of the two major parties? President Bush’s record of fiscal recklessness, including a deeply flawed Medicare reform package and corporatist bailouts, stands for itself. Similarly, President Obama has made little effort to substantively cut the deficit, increasing defense spending while passing a massive stimulus package filled with corporatist public-private partnerships.
Readers may be surprised to discover the striking parallel between Republicans and Democrats on other issues. Under President Bush, the DEA destroyed the concept of federalism with its rampant drug raids of medicinal marijuana dispensaries; similarly, Obama’s Attorney General Eric Holder opposed the marijuana-legalizing Proposition 19 in California on the grounds that it erodes federal authority.
Foreign policy is the same. President Bush supported war in Iraq and Afghanistan, killing tens of thousands of civilians and destabilizing two nations in the process. Meanwhile, President Obama’s administration continues combat operations without the name in Iraq and backs a nepotistic regime with a new troop surge in Afghanistan. Furthermore, President Obama has dramatically expanded President Bush’s nascent drone strikes in Pakistan (which according to former Petraeus advisor David Kilcullen killed approximately 14 senior Al Qaeda operatives to 700 civilians during a three-year span).
Even on civil liberties, a fundamental bulwark of procedural integrity in any democratic state, the parallels between our heads of state are readily apparent. Bush embraced Guantanamo Bay; Obama has given up on its closure while acting like similar problems do not exist in bases like Bagram in Afghanistan. In addition, both men embrace the growing power of the executive branch of government. Infamous blogger Glenn Greenwald sums it up best when he declares that “on matters of American empire or “state secrets,” the administration is as bad as Bush if not worse.”
Albert Einstein once declared that insanity is “doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” Considering the insanity of the electoral status quo for our country, it may be high time to vote for a third party.
Many will claim that a third party candidate cannot win; however, history dispels this motion. For the purposes of this article, I exclude those candidates who are Independent or minor party candidates on the basis of expediency (including Senator Joseph Lieberman and Governor Charlie Crist). Successful outsider candidates include our own former Reform Party Governor Jesse Ventura, current Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, and former Maine Governors James Longley and Angus King. In fact, every year a handful of Independent and minor party state legislators are elected nationwide.
In addition, some state-level minor parties have made significant strides in creating viable electoral alternatives to the two major parties. Two examples rise prominently above the fray. First is the Minnesota Independence Party. This was the party that helped elect Jesse Ventura Governor of our state. In addition, the IP regularly fields candidates breaking double-digit support in statewide contests, including Tim Penny in 2002 and Dean Barkley in 2008.
Similarly, the Vermont Progressive Party has become a significant force in that state’s electoral politics. In 2006, Progressive Anthony Pollina polled over 25% in November, defeating his Democratic opponent for runner-up status. Each year, its candidates win several seats in the state legislature. In addition, Independent Senator Bernie Sanders has a longstanding relationship with the party.
Other state parties are also on the rise. The Green Party maintains strong organizational capabilities in Maine, Arkansas, and Illinois. Similarly, the Libertarian Party has shown growing strength in Georgia, North Carolina, and Texas. One can similarly find growing Constitution, Working Families, and even Pirate Parties all over the country.
Even on a presidential level, the potential exists for a winning Independent candidate. In 1992, Ross Perot led the polls throughout the summer before the election; he arguably lost the election only upon inexplicably dropping out of the race for an entire month. Despite this major blunder, the eccentric billionaire managed 19% of the vote in November. Such an election could happen again; in fact, statistical guru Nate Silver points out that, “It’s quite easy to make a case that the terrain could be favorable for a third-party candidate in 2012.”
Of course, there are third party candidates who never have a chance to win. They may have negligible fundraising, little media attention, or simply choose not to campaign. Nevertheless, credible reasons remain to pull the lever for such candidates.
Let’s confront reality- your one individual vote will often not change the outcome of an election. Most congressional and state legislative districts are gerrymandered, so we know which party will win an election before it ever happens (unless you were in Massachusetts for Scott Brown’s upset). In addition, if an election is close enough to make each individual vote count, you simply move into the recount stage (which puts its primary emphasis on which votes are deemed valid).
However, individual votes do matter for minor parties and Independent candidates. The simplest function of this is the protest vote- you are an average citizen who is pissed off with the major party candidates, and you want to scream your displeasure by ‘spoiling’ your vote. This does serve a certain purpose, as it can force the major parties to expand their political base to account for your interests (provided enough similarly-minded voters also ‘protest vote’).
Nevertheless, there is a more practical function performed when you vote third party. Candidates outside of the major parties have difficulty creating a political base with the requisite fundraising capabilities and volunteer network. However, a strong showing at the polls can help alleviate this burden. For starters, many states have vote tests that determine ballot access for minor parties. Without meeting a certain polling threshold in previous elections, minor parties like the Libertarians and Greens must funnel thousands upon thousands of dollars to petition their way onto the ballot. However, if a party meets a vote test it can save this money for actual campaigning. In addition, strong electoral performances signal viability to potential donors and volunteers in subsequent bids for office for third party candidates. Thus, in a paradoxical fashion voting for a candidate who will not win can have a bigger effect than voting for the candidates that can.
I must add a caveat before I conclude. I am not saying that every major party candidate should be disowned. Indeed, I am a Republican who voted in my party’s primary and attended the state convention in 2010. Every now and then, I find decent candidates slip through the cracks of the Republocratic machine and find themselves on general election ballots. In that case, have no qualms about voting for a major party candidate. But if you really don’t like the major party choices in November, don’t feel dirty; spoil your vote.