Note: the following article is partially adapted from a piece I wrote in 2016 about the last presidential election, and is meant as a companion to my case for reelecting Donald Trump; please read that as well for my complete argument on how to view the 2020 presidential election.
What’s a voter to do when both major-party candidates for president are unappealing? For a vocal minority, the answer is to either vote for a third-party candidate or write in a name. Such choices are usually accompanied by platitudes about “sending a message” or casting a vote that “reflects my values.”
In the vast, overwhelming majority of cases, the third-party candidate will not become president, and in the vast, overwhelming majority of cases, the third-party voter knows it. He generally justifies his conscious decision to cast a vote that will not affect the outcome1—to forego the opportunity to help bring about a more positive outcome or prevent a more negative one—as a symbolic gesture, or a personal statement.
I submit that, in the vast, overwhelming majority of cases, this is grievously irresponsible for one simple reason: your vote affects other people. The ballot box isn’t a personal survey; elections have direct short- and long-term consequences for the freedom, safety, health, and prosperity of more than 330 million Americans other than yourself.
How you vote isn’t about you, your reputation, or your self-image. It’s not about symbolism, messaging, how any of the candidates make you feel, or even what any of the candidates “deserve.” It’s about what happens to millions of your countrymen—whether their personal freedoms expand or contract. How many innocent children they have to let be legally killed before birth. How much money is taken out of their paychecks. Whether job opportunities are allowed to grow or are suppressed. What kind of schools they can send their children to. How safe their communities are. What the government does with their money. How many dangers of the world spill over into their country. And even whether they’ll retain any means of reversing their government’s direction in the following elections.
To whatever extent voters should weigh notions of a candidate’s “fitness,” character, style, or temperament, morally they must give greater weight to the real-world consequences that candidate would have for the well-being of the American people. Further, voters cannot weigh those consequences in a vacuum, but in comparison to the consequences of the alternative winning instead.
Simply put: every American has a clear, overriding moral obligation to choose the viable candidate whose election would spare his or her countrymen the greatest amount of net harm.
But what if both candidates would be equally harmful? First, that might be theoretically possible, but if a third-party/write-in voter genuinely believes it, then he would have to justify his decision by making a case to that effect, and leave the my-vote-is-all-about-me platitudes behind.2
Second, moving from theory to reality, it’s plainly false that both choices before us in this election—Donald Trump and Joe Biden—would be equally harmful. Readers can click here to read my full case for that contention; here I’ll simply note that there are vast, clear policy differences between a mismanaged center-right executive branch and a unified hard-left one…among them the fact that (for reasons explained in the piece linked above) a Biden victory carries the very real danger of the nation our children inherit being transformed into one of single-party rule, one in which our constitutional order has been gutted beyond repair.
It is not hyperbole to say that the modern Democrat Party is opposed to every major principle of the American Founding. A Democrat takeover of the executive branch poses a clear, potentially existential (in the sense of permanently losing the freedoms and safeguards that make America America) threat to the country. Voting for Jo Jorgensen (the kind of person who supports the legal power to have one’s child executed in the womb, by the way) won’t do a thing to prevent that, or to advance any of the non-evil causes she and her fans claim to value. Nor will writing in a name in protest. Only by voting for Trump—distasteful though he is—do we stand even a chance of preventing it. (For those understandably unenthused about the incumbent, think of a Trump vote as a vote to keep the seat reserved for four years so a constitutional saboteur can’t occupy it, buying us time to hopefully work on finding someone better for 2024.)3
Of course, many reject the premise that their vote holds that much influence. While technically true in the sense that national elections never literally come down to a single vote, it’s also painfully obtuse—votes add up, particularly in light of the Electoral College, under which a few thousand votes in a few states can make the difference for the whole country.
The only circumstance in which it would be at least defensible to vote for a third-party presidential candidate would be if a voter of one party lives in a state absolutely dominated by the other, like Republicans living in California. It’s safe to say Biden will take the Golden State no matter how they vote.
Even so, while at least such voters won’t harm the electoral outcome, there’s still another consideration to keep in mind. Trump beat Hillary Clinton in 2016 in electoral votes, but lost the popular vote (thanks mostly to, again, California), which gave the Left a useful propaganda point they’ve relentlessly deployed ever since. Even if you don’t care about how that affects Trump or the GOP politically, you should certainly care about how it’s used to undermine the Electoral College, one of the pillars of our system of government.4
Large swaths of our culture have been conditioned to internalize a conception of voting that, at its core, is narcissistic. But the truth is that voting is a service, and a hugely consequential one at that (which is why the Founders believed in placing conditions on who could exercise it). As such, those who chose to participate are assuming an awesome responsibility. Ultimately, the only truly moral way to exercise that responsibility is to vote as if your vote will be the one to tip the balance between the top two competitors, whoever they may be.
1. The idea that a third-party vote doesn’t affect the outcome assumes that the voter doesn’t have a consistent pattern of voting for either party. But that isn’t the case if he is a longtime voter for one of the parties. If someone normally votes Republican but chooses to make an exception for Trump, it obviously helps Biden by reducing the number of votes the Republican nominee would have otherwise gotten (and vice versa).
2. I acknowledge that third-party and write-in votes may be more defensible at the state or local levels, where there may be lower stakes and greater variation among Republicans and Democrats. That said, such decisions should still be made on the basis of the relative outcomes, not on the use of the ballot box as a vehicle for self-expression.
3. None of this is to deny the many severe defects of Trump and the Republican Party. Whether the GOP is beyond reforming is a very open question, and the desire to burn it down so something better can take its place is entirely understandable. But reforming and replacing a major political party are difficult tasks, and there is no evidence that third-party presidential voting brings us any closer to accomplishing either of them. It’s worth noting that when the GOP replaced the Whig Party in the 1850s, it was channelling powerful preexisting discontent with its predecessor, not driving that discontent. As dysfunctional as the modern GOP currently is, one need only look at Trump’s approval rating within the GOP to see that today’s inter-party discontent is still nowhere near that level. (Also, the Libertarian Party is an impotent pack of amoral fools who don’t deserve to become one of the two major parties. But that’s another conversation.)
4. For voters who are also public figures, such as political activists or commentators, there’s one more reason you should vote for the better major-party candidate even if the opposite party dominates your state: setting a good example for members of your audience who live in states where their votes still can make a difference.