Anyone who has ever supported a third-party presidential candidate in an election has likely had to defend their decision from partisans who endorse the lesser-of-two-evils voter theory. By the logic offered by proponents of the theory, anyone who votes for an independent candidate is at best wasting their vote, and at worst handing the election over to their least-favorite major-party candidate.
With as many as four potential Supreme Court replacements looming during the next presidency, partisans will doubtlessly wield the argument with ferocious intensity during the run-up to the 2016 presidential general election.
However, for the vast majority of Americans in the overwhelming majority of states, this cannot possibly be the case. In presidential elections where Electoral College votes are allocated primarily in a winner-take-all fashion and in which there are very few competitive swing states, most Americans’ electoral votes in a particular election are already predetermined before anyone even heads to the polls.
Anecdotally-speaking, as a libertarian-leaning Tennessean who identifies as Republican, I knew going into the voting booth in 2012 that all of my Electoral College votes were going to go to Mitt Romney. However, I was warned in advance that if I pulled the lever for a third-party candidate, it would swing the election to Barack Obama. Republican activists scolded me that I would then be responsible for Obama’s radical Supreme Court nominees and all sorts of other fearful outcomes that I needed to vote for Romney to prevent.
Ultimately, Romney did not end up choosing positions that would earn my vote, and I was forced to pull the lever for a third-party candidate. All 11 of hard-red Tennessee’s winner-take-all Electoral College votes went predictably to Romney. Though Obama did end up winning the election, my vote did not in any way assist him in achieving that victory. All of my state’s votes went to Romney.
Did I waste my vote? I could have traveled all the way to the voting booth just to give Mitt Romney an even larger victory in Tennessee by a single vote that would have had no impact on his chances against Obama.
Voting third party on the other hand has some tangible effects. In some states, third parties gain legal status and ballot access when they obtain certain percentages in state-wide races such as presidential elections, thus expanding competition among political parties. Also, major party candidates tend to look at any unusually-high percentages earned by third-party candidates in elections as signals that it is time to take on some of the key issues that are gaining traction among independents in that party.
For partisans, voting third-party can push a favorite major party closer to that person’s views. Meanwhile, there is nothing stopping such a voter from continuing to support major-party candidates in state and local races down the ballot and continuing to support the party in general without being forced to vote for an unacceptable presidential candidate.
According to Politico, “In the current Electoral College battlefield, 40 of 50 states have voted for the same [party’s] candidate in all four elections since 2000. And, of the 10 exceptions, three [North Carolina, New Mexico, and Indiana] were fluky… That leaves just seven super-swingy states: Colorado, Florida, Nevada, Ohio, and Virginia, all of which backed Bush and Obama twice each, and Iowa and New Hampshire, which have voted Democratic in three of the last four elections.”
For voters in those 7-10 states, a close race days out from the election might lend a bit of credence to the lesser-of-two-evils theory. Also, in Nebraska and Maine, the only two states that do not allocate Electoral College votes in a winner-take-all manner and instead do so proportionally, the argument gains a bit more traction. That said, Maine only has 4 electoral votes and while it is possible that two candidates might split electoral votes in those states, according to the Office of the Federal Register, “It has not actually happened.”
Partisans will point to obscure potentialities like a state radically politically shifting suddenly as a potential outcome justifying a lesser-of-two-evils vote, but the odds of that happening solely on the basis of a third-party candidate surging are slim at best in any particular instance. Besides, if that were going to happen, voters would be aware of media-reported evidence of the political shift prior to election day and could make adjustments accordingly if they so desired.
Too often it is said that a third-party candidate has spoiled an election when popular vote election returns appear to show that candidate getting a number of votes that, if given to a major party candidate, would have changed the outcome. This assumes wrongly that 100 percent of that candidate’s voters were available to the major party candidate in the first place. As it pertains to the U.S. presidential race, such an argument also oversimplifies the complexities of the Electoral College system.
Ultimately, the lesser-of-two-evils voter theory wrests on a backwards principle — that voters should vote against their least-favorite candidate rather than voting for their favorite candidate. It is not the voter’s job to win the election for a political party or candidate. Candidates and political parties must earn the support of voters by choosing positions that will convince them to travel to a polling location and pull the lever in the voting booth.
In July of 2015, the Truth in Media Project released a Consider This video highlighting the fact that independent voters now outnumber Republicans and Democrats. Watch it in the below-embedded video player.