“I’d rather vote for what I want and not get it, than vote for what I don’t want and get it.”
— Eugene V. Debs, five-time presidential candidate of the Socialist Party of America
Lord, help me! How did a liberal evolve from a family full of conservatives? More specifically, I am a Centrist with decidedly progressive leanings.
As the world is aware, we in the United States are nearing the end of one of the most volatile presidential election years we’ve ever seen. So much so that I fear even more people than ever will stay away from the polls. Myself, I will place my vote on Friday during our early voting period, but I will still be on pins and needles until November 9th.
It has always been a point of pride for me to vote in local, state and federal elections. I remember how proud I was the first time I registered to vote, although I would not be able to vote in a presidential election for another three years.
I worry about the Millenials and Gen-Xers who feel their votes won’t matter, so they won’t vote. But for those who have decided to stay away from the polls, let me assure you . . . your vote DOES matter, whether it is for a major party candidate or a third-party candidate. Wasted votes have power, too.
Admittedly, I was concerned that those who do show up to vote, being so unhappy with either of the major party choices, will, by voting for a third-party candidate or a write-in, end up assuring a win for a major party candidate who might otherwise not have won. Such votes for third-party candidates or write-ins have traditionally been considered “wasted” votes. But then I did some research. And this is what I learned.
The Power of the Wasted Vote
A common theme during presidential elections is the idea that people who do not vote for one of the major party candidates are wasting their vote. This idea is passed around so frequently and casually that it is likely many of the people proposing it never really stop to think about it. Unfortunately, those accused of wasting their vote may mount a meek defense, acknowledging that while they may be wasting their vote, it’s okay because they’re voting their conscience. Aside from the fact that telling someone their vote is wasted is condescending, this logic lacks a basic understanding of what voting means. Voting is more than a simple act of math; voting is people actively taking responsibility for choosing their leaders and representatives. Therefore, you do not vote for who you think will win, you vote for who you think should win. The reality is the “wasted” vote has value, it wields power; it is intrinsically the same as the vote cast for the winner.
The Myth of the Wasted Vote
Major party candidates try to paint third-party candidates as sideshow acts that deflect from the real show. This characterization is not only harmful to democracy, but also untrue. Harmful, because it is attempting to silence perfectly valid points of view. Untrue because the Electoral College and 12th Amendment guarantee that all votes hold the same potential, especially in the event those votes return a plurality rather than a majority.
The verb waste is defined by The Oxford English Dictionary as: to use or expend carelessly, extravagantly or to no purpose; to expend on an unappreciative recipient; to fail to make full or good use of. Implicit in these definitions is the suggestion that whatever is being wasted has value. If one cannot really waste something that has no value, then the trope “your candidate cannot win; therefore, your vote is wasted” is a non-sequitor. It assumes that there is only value in the votes cast for the winner.
Telling people that they are wasting their vote is a fear tactic. And since many people are more motivated to avoid failure than they are motivated to achieve success it is a sound tactic, but it’s logic is dangerous. Feeling powerless and being motivated by fear are traits more commonly associated with totalitarian regimes, not democracies.
Every vote has value. One can vote for the eventual loser, for a candidate who reneges on their promises, or for an individual who appears to have little chance of winning, but none of these actions are tantamount to wasting one’s vote. Conversely, if you’re only voting for the candidate that is most likely to win and, in doing so, voting against your own beliefs, then you are truly wasting your vote.
More than Statistics
While each vote has statistical importance, there is more to a vote than simple mathematics. The election is not a horse race, it is not about picking the winners and the losers — it is about participating in democracy. That is why you do not simply vote for who you think will win, you vote for who you believe will do the best job based on the issues that are important to you. Your vote is your voice. If you are merely voting for the candidate most likely to win you are self-censoring.
From Either/Or to Neither/Nor, the Power of Influence
The presidential election is more than an either/or proposition. Third-party candidates certainly face an uphill battle before they will be seated in the oval office. However, that does not mean that votes for those candidates are wasted votes; every vote has the power to influence. Third-party candidates challenge the dual party system and add alternate viewpoints that can lead to a more robust national discussion.
People don’t need to justify their votes, regardless of their choice. Every vote cast has the power to change the direction of the national conversation; some just have a more direct impact than others.