Voting third party in a swing state is unethical. In fact, voting third party in any state that is even remotely close is an abdication of one’s responsibilities as a citizen. This year, Americans can vote for Trump or Clinton – whichever of these two candidates seems to present the best platform is the politician that one should support. Voting for Stein or Johnson, however, is completely unacceptable. Of course, voters living in a place like California or Alabama can probably afford to vote third party. A number of states are unusually close this year, however, and it is unethical to vote third party if one’s state has even a marginal chance of impacting the election.
I know a lot of people disagree with my position. Evan, for example, wrote an incredibly well-argued and nuanced piece a few months ago in which he laid out his reasons for supporting Gary Johnson. That piece is by the far the highest-performing post on our site, and deservedly so. Nevertheless, I think Evan’s argument is a tad dangerous because it’s not always easy to tell which states will be swing states, especially in volatile years like this one. Furthermore, the assumption that one’s vote doesn’t matter is what leads to political apathy, and that is very risky indeed. For instance, many people didn’t vote in the Brexit referendum because they were convinced that pre-referendum poll numbers were sufficiently high to secure victory for Remain. Instead of voting, they decided to relax at home. This proved to have disastrous consequences.
To be frank, I do think Evan is probably correct that Georgia – the state that I will be voting in – is far enough to the right that it has little chance of impacting the election. However, I’m not certain enough to comfortably vote third party. My vote might still play a role in stopping Trump, and this is far more important to me than voting my conscience. Moreover, I don’t really see the point in voting third party when third party candidates can objectively never win. Frankly, it seems just as useless as voting for a Republican in Washington, DC or a Democrat in Mississippi. In other words, voting third party is functionally an abdication of one’s role as a voter. A third party simply can’t win the presidency. Ever. That is a basic truth that no reasonable person would even try to argue against. Thus, voting third party does nothing except potentially shape the conversations between the Republicans and Democrats. To actually believe that one’s protest vote does anything is to live in a fantasy land.
To be completely clear, I despise the two party system that controls American politics. I have argued in essay after essay after essay that the United States should transition to a multi-party parliamentary system because I think that this would better represent the nuanced and variegated views of the American public. However, that is not the system we currently have, and no amount of wishful thinking is going to change the American electoral system before November.
One way to conceptualize my argument is to use a modified version of the classic “trolley problem.” As anyone who has taken an intro ethics class knows, the trolley problem forces one to deal with the implications of utilitarianism. The problem asks you to imagine that a trolley is rolling down the tracks towards a group of people who are tied down on the rails (imagine an old Western). You have a lever that allows you to switch the tracks so that the trolley diverts onto another path. This path only has one person tied to it, so diverting the trolley would save a greater number of lives. However, it would also make you personally responsible for the death of the one person stuck on the alternate tracks.
The election is very much like this. There are two choices, and neither one of them is ideal. As Evan persuasively explains in piece, both Trump and Clinton have glaring flaws as candidates. However, they are the two choices we have. We can pull the lever to the left and vote for Clinton, or we can pull it to the right and vote for Trump. Third party supporters would have us believe that there is some third direction we can move the lever (pull it back, perhaps?), but there isn’t. Just because Stein and Johnson supporters don’t like the choices that they have to work with doesn’t mean that other choices exist. One can leave the trolley on its course, divert it, or ignore the question entirely and just walk away from the lever. Regardless of what one does, people will die. Not making a choice is still a choice, and it comes with consequences.
Ultimately, it’s unethical to invent a reality that doesn’t exist and then make decisions as if we were living in this fantasy land. We can all imagine utopian worlds, but it would be utterly asinine to make decisions in our present, imperfect world by inventing non-existent utopias. The communists tried this, and it led to a lot of suffering, death, and economic stagnation. Look, I get why people are frustrated. This election year is no fun for anyone. Despite this, we have to deal with the situation we are presented with, even as we resent it. As Evan so succinctly argues in his piece on political pragmatism, “Having principles and an overarching worldview is a good thing, but allowing them to impede pragmatic action has detrimental ramifications.” This is true not only for extremists in Congress but also for us as voters. Life is an exercise in making non-ideal choices and tough compromises. We can’t just refuse to choose simply because there is no perfect option. If that was our standard, we’d never do anything, and that would be far worse than doing something, even if it wasn’t perfect.