Voting for a Third-Party Candidate is Not Wasting Your Vote

G. Stolyarov II
Issue CLXXV - October 29, 2008
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Few notions are more common in American political discussions today than the idea that voting for a third party candidate is “wasting one’s vote.” This kind of thinking is not only saddening – because it helps perpetuate a disastrous two-party, single-platform political establishment. This kind of thinking is also factually wrong. Third party candidates can have enormous impacts on an election, even if they do not win. But they can even win or replace one of the major party candidates as top contenders for office, as has happened several times in the past.

Consider these notable examples.

In the election of 1860, the Republican Party was a third party. The Republican Party was formed in 1854 at the time when the existing two-party system was comprised of the Democratic Party and the Whig Party. The Whig Party was in decline because its reason for existing – its opposition Andrew Jackson – was no longer current, as Andrew Jackson died in 1845. At the same time, the Democratic Party had fractured into two Southern wings and one Northern wing, leading to the 1860 election having four major contenders – Abraham Lincoln and three Democrats: Stephen Douglas, John C. Breckinridge, and John Bell. Abraham Lincoln – the third party candidate – won the election with 39.8% of the popular vote, despite his name being omitted from the ballots in many Southern states.

I am not fond of Abraham Lincoln or his policies, but clearly his supporters did not think that voting for a third party candidate – for a candidate whose party was only formed six years earlier, no less – was a waste of a vote! They voted on their principles, and they were successful in electing to office the man they wanted to be President.

Another notable third party candidate was Eugene Victor Debs of the Socialist Party, who ran for President five times in 1900, 1904, 1908, 1912, and 1920. He did not win, of course, but he did receive about 6 percent of the popular vote (901,551 votes) in 1912.

Yet take a look at the Socialist Party Platform of 1912. The majority of the measures recommended by that platform has been enacted by subsequent American governments. Eugene Debs had a tremendous intellectual influence on the course of American politics. It was a negative influence, in my judgment, but it still shows just how much influence a candidate can have if he captures 6 percent of the popular vote and leads the major parties to recognize a large voting bloc that is dissatisfied with either establishment option. Then the major parties are much more likely to alter their own platforms in order to try to capture this voting bloc. But if not enough people vote for a third party, then the major parties will not receive such a signal and will instead presume that they have a popular mandate to do whatever they please.

In the election of 1912, Theodore Roosevelt ran as a third party candidate with the Progressive Party. He did not win, but he displaced William Howard Taft as the major opponent of Woodrow Wilson. Taft, the incumbent president, got fewer popular and fewer electoral votes than Roosevelt, and the debates of the 1912 election were largely between Roosevelt and Wilson. Most remarkable about this election was the fact that Theodore Roosevelt created the Progressive Party specifically for the occasion, and it received 4,122,721 votes during its first election. I detest Theodore Roosevelt’s ideas, but his experience clearly demonstrates that a third party can have a colossal impact in an election.

The candidacy of Ross Perot in 1992 is another excellent example of how a good turnout for a third party can influence the political process. Perot received around 18.9% of the popular vote – 19,743,821 votes – among individuals dissatisfied with the growth of government and the rising national debt. As a consequence of Perot’s impressive performance, many Republican party officials recognized that their party was steadily losing support with its base. They adopted many of Perot’s ideas in the 1994 Congressional elections and won under the promise of a Contract With America that would greatly reduce the scope and power of the government and lift many of the most burdensome regulations. Numerous provisions of the Contract With America, most notably welfare reform, were indeed enacted in subsequent years.

As is evident, voting for a third party candidate does not mean wasting one’s vote. Numerous occasions in history have shown just how powerful third parties can be in influencing current and subsequent elections and policies. If you want real political change in accord with your principles, then you should always vote according to your conscience and consider your choices constrained only by your genuine principles.

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Learn about Mr. Stolyarov's novel, Eden against the Colossus, here.

Read Mr. Stolyarov's comprehensive treatise, A Rational Cosmology, explicating such terms as the universe, matter, space, time, sound, light, life, consciousness, and volition, here.

Read Mr. Stolyarov's four-act play, Implied Consent, a futuristic intellectual drama on the sanctity of human life, here.