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Are Votes on Third Parties Wasted?


When American voters go to the polls this election season, they will see the familiar names of the
Democratic and Republican candidates, along with some names that may be completely unknown to
them. A few third party candidates, such as Ross Perot or Ralph Nader, have gained widespread
recognition, but most candidates outside the mainstream seem to have little impact on American politics.
Two political parties dominate the political landscape, and third parties seem permanently relegated to the
irrelevant fringes.
Most people see votes on third parties as wasted votes, perhaps even worse than useless. The general
assumption is, if a third party candidate has no chance of winning, then it is foolish to lower the chances
of the next-best, big-party candidate. Voting for a lesser-of-two-evils candidate who can win would be
better than voting for an ideal candidate who will lose.
But are third party candidates truly irrelevant? Perhaps winnability doesnt matter as much as most
voters seem to think. If the third party candidate can exert an influence on the Big Two parties, the
objective may be accomplished.
Think of American political ideas as fitting on a spectrum from left to right. Assume that most voters fit
somewhere in the middle, as moderates, and that the distribution of political opinion is symmetric (for
example, people on the far left are just as uncommon as people on the far right). It might look like a bellshaped curve. Democrats of course occupy the territory to the left, and Republicans the territory to the
right.
Next, assume that there are only two candidates, and that people vote for the candidate whose ideas are
closest to their own. Any space on the spectrum between the two candidates will therefore be split
evenly between them, as the voters cast their votes toward the nearest candidate. To gain more votes,
each candidate has the incentive to move toward the other candidate, attracting more of the votes in the
area between them. Therefore, both candidates will gravitate toward the middle of the voter spectrum.
Looking at politics this way, we can understand why Democrats and Republicans so often appear to have
virtually the same policy proposals. Voters on both the far left and the far right will be perennially
frustrated as they see the candidate closest to them moving toward the middle.
The solution, for some on the fringes, is to start a third party. It is true enough that there is no significant
chance that a third-party candidate would be elected to national office. But this is not the point. For a
right-wing third party, for example, the goal would be (a) to gain publicity for right-wing ideas and (b) to
threaten the Republican candidate with the loss of a number of voters on the far right. As we saw in the
2000 presidential election, even the loss of a few voters can constitute a serious threat. If the Republican
does not respond by making important concessions to those on his right, he could lose the election to a

candidate from a unified left. Of course, the Democrats have their own third parties with which they must
contend.
Some have pointed to the possibility of that mainstream candidates loss as a reason for opposing third
parties at least, third parties on their end of the political spectrum. But this is a short-sighted view. From
the perspective of the right wing, again, voting third party so that the Democratic candidate wins would
reveal to the Republican Party the power of the far right to deny them victory. When the next election
comes around, the Republican candidate may be someone who is more acceptable to the right-wing third
party. The change occurs not because the third party candidate was elected, but because he pulled a
mainstream partys candidate in his direction.
Many Republicans have argued that even if George W. Bush has proven to be less conservative than
some on the right had hoped, he at least will put judges into office who will be better than those a
Democrat would select. Judges, as everyone knows, can outlast a president and therefore will have a
long-term impact on American legal interpretation. If a Democrat wins, the judicial legacy he leaves could
be disastrous, from the right wings perspective. But this does not really counter the objections of the third
party advocates. Why wouldnt judge appointments move rightward along with the Republican candidate,
when under threat from a right-wing third party? And, why would conservatives who are so concerned
about the long-term impact of judge appointments be relatively unconcerned with a long-term leftward drift
in the Republican Party?
This is an important issue for Christians who want to see Christian views reflected in the political sphere.
Many Christians are moderates, of course, and are perfectly comfortable with one of the mainstream
candidates. But others who find themselves at one end of the political spectrum are not satisfied. For
example, opponents of abortion may find the inactivity of the Republicans on the issue frustrating. But
Republicans have, for years, been able to pay lip service to the pro-life agenda without following through.
They know that pro-lifers will see the Republican position on abortion as more acceptable than the
Democratic position, however small the difference might be in practice. The presidential nominee of the
Constitution Party, Michael Peroutka, has been critical of the Republican Partys inaction on abortion, and
hopes to loosen the Republicans grip on the pro-life vote. (The Constitution Party is not a one-issue party
it stands for a limited constitutional government, an end to foreign military intervention, an end to the
federal income tax, and more old-fashioned ideas that do not have much of an audience within the
Republican Party.)
On the Democratic side, radical environmentalists may not be content with John Kerrys environmental
agenda, but they will prefer it to the Republican agenda. The Democrats know this and have counted on a
locked-in vote from environmentalists, but third parties like the Green Party present a threat in a close
election (Green Party candidate David Cobb is also positioning himself as more consistently anti-war than
Kerry). As long as those on the political fringes are willing to vote based on winnability, the two large
parties see no need to grant concessions to their extreme elements.

These are all practical considerations, of course. What about the argument that we should vote for the
best candidate on principle, no matter what the chances for victory? This would imply that write-ins
should be a much larger proportion of the moral persons votes write-ins have next to no chance of
winning, but the write-in is more likely to conform to the voters preferences than any of the existing
candidates, including third party candidates. But voting is about communicating a political preference, and
write-ins simply communicate a defection without conveying a positive alternative agenda. Third parties at
least have a public platform that is recognizable to the mainline parties.
If you vote this election season, and are inclined to favor a third party but are concerned that you might
throw your vote away, distinguish your vote from the rest of the crowd and go with that third party. But
remember, too, that Christian society is not built on political accomplishments. Whatever happens this
year politically, faithfulness individually, in the family, and in the church will be far more important in the
long run.