It is difficult to pinpoint the last time the major party nominees for a U.S. presidential election have been so unpopular or divisive. But for better or for worse, either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump will be our next president, and a third party vote might be more dangerous than wasteful.
More than a few people have looked at Clinton’s uncomfortable baggage and Trump’s open bigotry and felt that they could not in good conscience vote for either one of them. As a result, third party candidates have been gaining more attention than usual, the favorites being Jill Stein of the Green Party and Gary Johnson of the Libertarian party.
Both of these candidates have flaws of their own, however.
Most people know of Gary Johnson’s “Aleppo” moment, where upon being asked by a MSNBC reporter what he would do about the city’s refugee crisis, he replied “What’s Aleppo?”. This is more worrying than comical in a country like the U.S., where the federal system ensures that a president has more influence with foreign policy than domestic policy.
Harvard educated Jill Stein may seem like a safer bet, but she has her own misunderstandings. Her student debt plan, a homing call for Sanders supporters, doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. Her plan is to use quantitative easing, the policy that allowed the Wall Street banks to be bailed out in 2008, to pay for student debt. However, only the federal reserve has that authority, and it’s not obligated to obey orders from the president. Stein optimistically says that the 1.3 trillion dollar in loans “is tiny by comparison” to the 17 trillion dollar bailout, but that may be another reason why it might fail. The Wall Street bailout was controversial enough, and loan debt isn’t anywhere near as likely to wreck our economy as bank failure.
More important than their particular merits or demerits is the fact that neither of these two candidates are going to win. All that has been accomplished has been demonstrating, time and time again, that third-party candidates lose. Protest votes have gone unheard, and the liberal-conservative divide remains the main of U.S. politics.
That’s not to say voting third-party is completely meaningless. The consequences are very real — liberal votes are being drawn to Stein and Johnson that might have otherwise gone to Hillary. Whether you like it or not, a vote for a third-party is a vote for Trump.
Spoiling — the term for when minor candidates “steal” votes from an ideologically similar major candidate — is not a hypothetical threat. If you are old enough to vote in the United States, this has happened in your lifetime. In 2000, George W. Bush was elected despite losing the popular vote, an outcome that significantly hinged on Florida. Had Al Gore, the democratic nominee, received just 538 of the 97,421 votes that went to Green Party candidate Ralph Nader, he would have won both Florida and the election. A poll conducted by Voters News Service found that 47% of Nader voters would have voted for Gore had there been only Democratic and Republican candidates.
Another factor was the butterfly ballot, a two-page ballot paper used in Palm Beach County, Florida that had a confusing design. However, the result is the same: a third party got the vote of anyone who mistakenly punched the second hole down.
As understandable as it is to wish we had a third option, the reality is that we don’t. If you want to dismantle the third party system, vote third party on a local and state level, and build a solid presence before trying to throw in a president. If you’re a Bernie Sanders supporter, vote for Hillary like he’s been asking people to. Sanders and Stein will find it hard to make a difference in a country where Republicans hold both presidency and congress, but under a Democratic administration they have a chance.