The Democratic and Republican nominating processes are effectively over, and the general election looks like it will pit Donald Trump against Hillary Clinton. This choice–between two candidates that are each viewed more unfavorably than any previous major party front-runner since the question started being asked–naturally has many people wishing there was a better of option.
This is not really unique, of course. Voting for the lesser of two evils is a time-honored tradition in American politics. We vote for a candidate we don’t really like in the hopes of preventing a worse candidate from winning. And even though most of us probably agree much more with a more consistent third-party candidate, we won’t vote for the third-party for fear of “wasting our vote”. No doubt, you’ve heard this argument before.
But there’s a significant flaw in this line of thinking. In reality, you can’t waste your vote because it never mattered in the first place–at least not in the conventional sense.
I’m not suggesting anything conspiratorial here. It’s not because of superdelegates or rigged voting machines or an establishment cabal that would overturn the outcome. On the contrary, it’s basically just math.
A Simple Example
To see why, let’s first consider a pure popular vote-style election. To keep things simple, let’s imagine a country that has 100,001 eligible voters and only two candidates running for office, Stein and Johnson. Election day comes, everyone votes, and after the votes are tallied (and recounted), we discover the vote count was 50,000 to 50,001 giving a narrow edge to Mr. Johnson. In this case, exactly one person’s vote mattered–the 50,001st vote in favor of Johnson. This is what economists often refer to as the median voter, and it’s also why all politicians tend to sound very similar after the primary election. By and large, they’re appealing to the very same group of people that has the potential to swing the election.
The idea here is that everyone can basically ranked in terms of their commitment to a candidate. If 100 is a sure vote for Johnson, then let’s say 0 is a voter who is certain to vote for Stein, again sticking with our two-candidate setup. A large number of people on both sides of the midway mark are basically committed to their candidates. The person whose preferences are closest to neutral between them is the median voter and the only one that ultimately mattered. In the example above, the median voter was the 50,001st voter to get off the fence between the two and decided to vote for Johnson.
The analysis gets somewhat more complicated when we include the possibility of people not voting and additional candidates. But the fundamental insight remains the same. In a popular vote, the only vote that matters is the one that put the winner over the top in an election. If there’s a margin of victory greater than one, then in some sense, no individual’s vote mattered because it wouldn’t have altered the outcome even if they changed their mind.
So there’s always an outside chance of having your vote matter and actually determine the election outcome. But this already remote probability declines the bigger the population is. Thus, in the USA where there are roughly 235 million people of voting age (as of 2012), the probability of your vote being the deciding one would be essentially zero, even if an election really did come down to a single vote.
What about the Electoral College?
We’re already basically at zero, but it’s worth noting that the probability declines still further for most of us once we take the electoral college into account. Under this system, all but two states (Nebraska and Maine) have a winner-takes-all system where the candidate that receives the most gets all the electoral votes. Thus, if you live in a state that votes consistently for one party in the presidential race, as I do here in Oregon, you already basically know how they’ll vote in November. You’ll also know whether it tends to be a comfortable margin of victory; chances are it’s much larger than one. Whether you like the outcome or not is irrelevant. The point is that the probability of your individual vote changing it are infinitesimal.
This is important because fully 32 states and DC have all voted in the same direction in each of the past 6 electoral cycles. It’s not certain that every one of them will do so again, but most of them probably will. If you live in any of those, you probably can rest easy knowing the presidential election doesn’t hang on your decision.
What about if you live in the roughly 17 or so that are more likely to be in play? Here again, the same general analysis above comes to bear. For your vote to truly matter, even in a swing state, you would have to be the deciding vote in your state’s contest, and your state’s electoral votes would have to be the deciding factor. About as close as we ever came to this phenomenon was in Florida in the year 2000, but there was no single deciding vote in that case either (unless we’re talking about the Supreme Court).
What’s the Alternative?
What all of this means is that you should feel free to vote for what you actually believe. Maybe that’s Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. Or if you were feeling the Bern before, maybe that’s the Green Party candidate Jill Stein, who at least has the scarce virtue of being antiwar in this cycle. Or if you’re a libertarian, maybe that means voting for the eventual nominee of the Libertarian Party, likely Gary Johnson or Austin Petersen.
In this election cycle, as mentioned, it won’t make any difference. The probability of Jill Stein or Gary Johnson actually becoming president in this election might be one of the only things lower than the probability of you being the deciding vote. But if we vote for the ideas we actually want, we can have an impact on future elections. If pro-peace Bernie supporters vote for Stein or Johnson, the Democratic Party will learn that it can’t take the far left for granted when they nominate an overtly militant candidate like Hillary Clinton. This is likely to change their calculations in the future. And indeed, we actually are already seeing some impact from that in primary race as Hillary has consistently moved towards Bernie’s positions on many issues.
Similarly, on the Republican side, if conservatives or free market supporters break rank and vote for a libertarian, then the GOP might learn that it can’t continue to violate its allegedly small government ideals and still expect support. It would feel the pressure to actually show results from the small government ethos instead of just offering symbolic votes on Obamacare once every few months.
And of course, it’s possible that neither party will learn anything at all. But if we vote for what we believe, there’s at least a real pathway to changing politics going forward–pushing both parties to more consistently practice what they claim to support. If we continue voting for the lesser of two evils, we know nothing good will happen; that’s how we got here.
So when you consider voting third-party this year, just remember this one fact that is equal parts depressing and consoling. You can’t waste your vote, because it was never going to change the election in the first place.