On Wasted Votes and Purity

This time of year, everyone is a little disappointed in the major party candidates on the ballot. Sometimes it’s because the candidates are simply lacking. More often, I think it’s because opposing candidates have been beating up on each other for several months. Third party candidates are more appealing at times because they can cater to your niche political philosophy or because they have not had to broaden their appeal to the lowest common denominator or because they simply haven’t been the focus of attacks. In close races, you’ll hear discussion about how a third-party candidate is a spoiler “taking” votes from one of the major party candidates.

My personal philosophy (but hardly unique to me) is that you vote your heart in the primary and vote your head in the general. Vote who you think would make the best office holder in the primary; vote against who you think would make the worst office holder in the general.

I agree with Andy Horning – the Libertarian candidate for Senate – when he says that he isn’t “taking” anyone’s vote. He is right, the vote belongs to the citizen, not the candidate. So, I don’t think candidates or parties are justified in taking a proprietary view of anyone’s vote, regardless of who they vote for.

That said, if it is clear that only two candidates have a statistically probable chance of winning and if it is of any importance at all to you whether one of those two candidates wins the office or loses the office, then the logic of the math dictates that voting for a third candidate makes it slightly more likely that the outcome you favor least will come to pass.

But, I often hear, if we just keep playing the two party game, nothing will ever change. The problem with this rationale is that the two party system has remained mostly static since the creation of our Republic. If that’s going to change, it’s not going to be because some negligible percentage of people show up on election day and cast third party votes. I think it would require sustained effort at a local level, working upward with a goal of changing our voting system to include proportional representation or instant run off voting or something. Getting to the polls on election day, grumbling about your selections, and casting a vote for a third party candidate might feel good, but history suggests it’s not going to change anything.

But worse, in my opinion, are people who are too invested in their sense of political purity to dirty themselves with the major party candidates. More than one person I know thinks that political parties themselves are a corruption of the political system; maybe citing the Founder’s warnings against “faction.” Corruption or no, they exist and they are effective for the acquisition of political power. No matter how much more noble the single cell organism might be, it simply can’t compete against the multicellular organism to whom it is, more likely than not, food. Evolution, in biology or politics, goes with the organism that is successful in replicating itself and doesn’t give a damn about the details of that replication so long as it works.

So, get out and vote; and, when you cast your vote, give some thought to the math behind what you’re doing.

Comments

  1. says

    Very nice. “No matter how much more noble the single cell organism might be, it simply can’t compete against the multicellular organism to whom it is, more likely than not, food. Evolution, in biology or politics, goes with the organism that is successful in replicating itself and doesn’t give a damn about the details of that replication so long as it works.”

  2. says

    If I used pure math, Doug, I wouldn’t vote at all. My vote really doesn’t matter on its own, even more so in a presidential election in Indiana. It isn’t like we’re Florida or Ohio, here.

    So, since we’re talking about ideals, I choose to vote 3rd party. I’ve voted AGAINST someone in every presidential election so far. I’m excited to vote FOR someone for once.

    • says

      Hah. Those ads were an experiment by my wife. I don’t think we’ve gotten dime one out of them. (I think you have to get $10 or something before they’ll cut you a check.)

      • Mary says

        I’ve seen those ads everywhere, and on many places I haven’t expected to see them. Do you “rent” out the space but not get a say in the content? How do you “not make a dime” on them? Do people have to click on them for you to get paid? Are you testing their effectiveness at the risk of spreading a political message that I don’t quite let myself think you believe in? BTW, I’m just curious, and this is a chance for my questions to be answered.

  3. says

    Despite my partisan Libertarian bona fides, I do scratch vote and make some sort of ‘percentage agreement’ calculus of the Ds & Rs before I vote. And, I especially have a track record to go on with incumbents.

    For instance, when Obama was inaugurated, there were things I could look forward to, based on his campaigning: the swift end to the war in Iraq, and end to deficit spending, closing Gitmo, ending indefinite detention, scaling back Executive power. He failed on all of them. It causes him to score awfully low with me.

    But Romney offers me so little himself. He didn’t even counter Obama on any of those items. His foreign policy of late is ‘What did Obama say? Me too!’ He’s backed by all the same banks. He can’t name anything he would cut except the taxes in the highest bracket (hey Mitt! It’s the spending, stupid!).

    So, when I score the agreement 95% Johnson, 15% Obama, 10% Romney, I’m just not wowed and excited to go for Obama. That wouldn’t be using my head or my heart. My ass? Maybe.

    So- am I the bad example?

    • says

      No, probably not. From what you’ve said, you don’t seem to think the governance of Romney would be much different from the governance of Obama; at least not in any way that’s important to you. Second, living in Indiana, there appears to be almost no chance of Obama winning.

      if it is clear that only two candidates have a statistically probable chance of winning and if it is of any importance at all to you whether one of those two candidates wins the office or loses the office

      So, the Obama/Romney contest fails on the second point for you, and probably the first as well.

      The Mourdock/Donnelly contest might be more of a poser. Certainly either stands a chance of winning. Whether you think the governance of either would be different in a way that makes a difference to you, I don’t know. It’s even tougher because Andy is such a likable candidate.

      • says

        *Probably* not? Haha, left some wiggle room in there. Ok.

        Really! You think Mourdock has a snowball’s chance? I don’t. That rape gaffe was the A-bomb of gaffes. There’s no recovery. Before the gaffe, I had Andy at as much as double the margin between Mourdock and Donnelly. Now I think Donnelly will win by a margin close to what Horning pulls. I’d put it 49 Donnelly, 41 Mourdock, 10 Horning.

  4. Paul says

    Doing “the math” strikes me as conceding too much of my power as a voter to polling organizations. Limiting my vote to candidates of the major parties only validates the major parties’ game of limiting ballot access and suppressing voter turn-out on the part of those their polls suggest will oppose them.

    The argument that “voting for a third candidate makes it slightly more likely that the outcome you favor least will come to pass” strikes me as little more than a variant of basing my vote on which of the two major party candidates as being the lessor of two evils. I agree that people buy into that. It is a good explanation as to why the Obama and Romney campaigns spent so much time and money trying to “define” the other guy.

    Still, in many election years, the Libertarians seem to sifting among a pretty limited pool of candidates for office. When the Indiana LP puts up a fine candidate like Andy Horning I think it particularly important to give the candidate my vote and I did so this year without hesitation. I was happy to see that some 146,000 Hoosiers (a negligible 5.8%) thought the same way.

    • says

      I have to ask, did a vote for Horning do any practical good?

      There’s probably game theory out there that demonstrates a winner-take-all system reaches equilibrium with two parties. (I’m guessing.) Historically you’ve seen third parties rise up – but only if it means displacing one of the other two parties.

      Without something like proportional representation or instant run off, I think third party votes are more or less useless. (Even though I cast them myself from time to time where I don’t like the first party and the second party is far behind.)

  5. Paul says

    It is conventional wisdom that the country is highly polarized. I think the conventional wisdom is wrong. It is mistaking the passions engendered among the hard core partisans by a closely divided body politic. The parties use the hot button issues to rile up their respective bases (abortion, immigration) and turn to attack ads to scare swing votes away from the opposition. This may look like polarization but actually reflects something quite different, that being an increasingly post-partisan, politically moderate populace.

    Historically speaking, relatively successful third parties (the Progressives, Prohibition, for example) have seen their ideas co-opted by one of the major parties in bids to capture the supporters of those movements. More recently it might be argued that the Republican’s “Contract with America” in 1994 was an attempt to deal with the Reform Party. The Green Party certainly has some influence on the Democrats, particularly after Florida in 2000. Where the two major parties are closely balanced the strength of third parties becomes all the greater.

    Right now I’d guess Horning’s 5.8% of the vote looks pretty sweet to Republicans calculating how to knock off Donnelly in six years. I’m guessing the Republicans believe that Horning’s vote total, at least in part, reflects a slice of voters who abandoned them due to Mourdock’s ramblings on social issues. As to whether voting for Horning will achieve anything practical I can only answer the question if one of the major parties starts to co-opt some of his or the LP’s ideas into their agendas.

    In passing I found the injection of the abortion issue into the Indiana senate campaign a bit ironic as I understand Donnelly to have identified himself as “pro-life.” I for one don’t think election of Mourdock would have had any substantial consequences for abortion law in the country. One might speculate that a candidate with more nuanced and broadly acceptable views as Donnelly has might be more influential on the margins of abortion law than a candidate as inarticulate as Mourdock proved to be.

    As to game theory considerations, I doubt your conclusion that a two party system is a probable product of first past the post/(winner take all) electoral system. Anglo-phone Canada has a three party system (Conservative, Liberal, NDP) as does England (Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democratic). Of course these are parliamentary systems with only a single elected house unlike our bicameral/elected executive system. Mexico’s system superficially resembles ours in having states, an elected congress and an elected president. It for many years was of course a one party system (the PRI) but seems to have evolved into a three party system (PRI, PAN and PRD) over the last two decades. Nor have all of the United States always exhibited two party politics. The States of the former Confederacy had, for nearly a century, one party systems.

  6. carlito brigante says

    Paul, you raise some interesting points. But I would argue that the south is still a one-party region and that only the name of the party has changed. This allowed a center-right Republican party to enjoy success in other regions of the country.

    The two-party system is as engrained as the English system of weights and measures. Your first point is correct that relatively successful systems have their ideas co-opted and their Raison d etre ceases. I do not think that we have had an relatively successful third parties in recent years. We have had successful personality cult options of varying degrees of credibility. Ross Perot, John Anderson, Jesse Ventura in Minnesota. But they are one-hit wonders. So I would have to scratch the Reform party in its 20th century iterations from that list.

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