It's an election year. As usual, articles are being published endorsing candidates, declaring preferences, and generally asking people -- more or less directly -- to vote for or against a particular person. If you are a liberty activist, like I am, or someone otherwise inclined to the views best expressed by third-party candidates, a lot of these articles will be directed at you. Most of them will cover the same theme: if you vote for a third-party candidate, you will be wasting your vote, because they don't have any chance of winning. Some of them will, in addition, claim that your vote for a third-party candidate may actually hurt your cause, by removing support for the major candidate otherwise closest to your views.
I'm going to talk about wasting your vote, too, but there's a catch. I'm going to tell you that, unless you live in a closely-contested state or district, voting for either major-party candidate is wasting your vote. The conventional wisdom on third-party candidates is wrong -- and here's why.
America is currently in an unusual political situation. Only a few percentage points separate the Democratic and Republican sides in most states -- and those are the percentage points in the center. The activists of both parties, on the other hand, are entrenched; the division there is sharp and angry. Whichever side you examine, the activists are infuriated by the people on the other side and contemptuous of their own politicians who continually seek advantage by moving closer to the center.
But that contempt doesn't matter. Because of the bitter discord between committed conservatives and committed liberals, those votes are ensured. A Republican activist will never cross party lines to vote Democratic, and the same applies in reverse. The politicians don't need to cater to those viewpoints. All they need to do is win their party's nomination; once that has been achieved (and doing so, for an incumbent, is child's play) they can ignore whatever promises they made to their core party faithful in order to play for the center.
What that means is that the election will be decided in large part by those voters in the center; those who haven't thought about the issues, haven't been paying attention, and probably vote more with their gut than with their head. The political machine for the rest of the country, though, has been finely tuned. In many states, redistricting has ensured that most incumbent politicians will not face a serious challenge. In only a few areas are the outcomes in serious doubt. The same applies to the Presidential race; most of the states that were red in 2000 will be red in 2004. Only a few swing states are seriously contested. The politicians know which states and districts are at risk, and they are concentrating their efforts there.
It's sad, but true, that third-party candidates don't get a lot of attention and, thus, don't get a lot of votes. But remember those few percentage points in the center? Politicians win or lose by the same low percentage points that third parties can give or receive, when an election is closely contested.
Be assured that the major parties are watching the third parties closely. They want that support if they can get it, but they also want those middle-ground votes. And they know that they are much more likely to lose middle-ground votes than potential third-party votes; most third-party voters will hold their nose and vote major-party rather than risk a major-party opposition candidate being elected. The lesser-of-two-evils doctrine rules in close elections.
But what if the election isn't close?
What if you live in a deep-red state or a navy blue state -- one that has a margin of, say, 5-10% in favor of one party over the other? Suppose, for example, that you live in Texas; that's a deep-red state, almost certain to go for Bush in 2004 by a fair margin. The Texas legislature passed a redistricting plan that practically ensures a heavily-republican majority for the foreseeable future in the state legislature. Suppose you are a libertarian type -- you dislike Kerry on guns, healthcare, taxes. You like Bush on taxes and his lipservice on guns, but don't much like his views on civil liberties. Suppose you are considering holding your nose and voting for Bush, though, because you think Kerry's views on Iraq and terrorism would be a disaster.
Since you're a single voter in a relatively uncontested state, your vote is unlikely to swing the election one way or another. No matter who you vote for, Bush will probably carry Texas, and the Republicans will probably retain their majority in their legislature. That's right, a vote for Bush in Texas is a wasted vote; so is a vote for Kerry. Neither party knows how or why you, specifically, voted. Neither party knows you were holding your nose. They just see the vote in their column. If a conservative type votes for Kerry, they can't tell that vote apart from a normal Kerry supporter unless a lot of people do it -- and a lot of people won't. They're afraid of "wasting their vote". And the same applies in the other direction.
Neither party can see how you vote, or why you vote... unless you vote for a third-party candidate. That third-party vote tells the world what you, as a voter, stand for. It tells the world that you are not going to hold your nose for the lesser of two evils. And that's something that will make the major parties sit up and take notice, because it means their core supporters, the activists, the people who really care about the issues... are defecting.
That's a real, positive impact. And it will make the party pay even closer attention to you, and your views, because you have demonstrated that you aren't willing to compromise your values. You have gone from a dependable, secure vote -- one that can be bought with marginal lip service -- to a vote that must be earned.
But what about the election? What if, in this example, Kerry wins Texas?
The first thing to realize is that this is extremely unlikely to happen. Kerry isn't trying to appeal to Texans; he's written off the state. His supporters in Texas know they are going to lose and aren't likely to put forth a major effort to contest the state. Republicans can get their voters to show up by portraying Kerry as a major threat, without mentioning the fact that the race probably won't even be close. So, even if you vote for a third-party candidate, you won't change the outcome of the election in your state or in the nation. The same applies, on a smaller scale, to most Senate races and congressional districts.
But your third-party vote shows the major parties where you stand. Your opinion registers. Regardless of the outcome of the election, you, as a voter, gain bargaining power by differentiating yourself from the masses of major party voters. Your "lesser of two evils" major party candidate will pay more attention to you as a result. Your "greater of two evils" candidate may also pay attention -- and start tailoring his own views to match yours, if possible, to encourage a split in his opponent's constituency. If he does that, your vote gains even more bargaining power, and so do the views you are espousing.
But if you vote for a major party candidate in an uncontested race, the party will take you for granted while they focus on the swing voters in the middle. That's what I call a wasted vote.
Check out this map of the 2004 swing states (and Google's cache if it's slow). Are you living in a swing state? If not, you can vote for a third party with a clear conscience. You won't be wasting your vote; you'll be investing it.