Democrats have engaged in one a lot of worrying and hang-wringing about the possibility of third-party voters “spoiling” the election. The assumption is that those who vote third-party would 1) otherwise have voted and 2) otherwise have voted for Hillary Clinton—both of which are not necessarily true. They use the specter of Ralph Nader’s 2000 presidential bid to warn that good-hearted, well-intentioned liberals and progressives could throw the election to a man who would be despot. When voters vote for a third-party candidate, they are ignoring the consequences of that vote for people of coloring, an act of white privilege.
There are a number of problems with that, including the fact that Nader didn’t cost Al Gore the election, so the comparison doesn’t work.
Another problem is that third party voters can actually advantage the Democratic party. So Democratic leaders can stop scolding about it.
I really like Robert Chappell’s October 5 opinion piece for Madison365, “Third-Party Voting is the Height of White Privilege.” In the contours of his argument, he’s right: American minorities will be worse off in every way if Donald Trump is elected president. White men will be worse off, too, because American broadly will be worse off and because a system that injuries some demeans our entire democracy, but the practical, daily ways in which they suffer will be bearable annoyances (having to listen to Donald Trump on a regular basis, explaining our stupidity to people in nations that don’t have the privilege of electing leaders, etc.) rather than outright assaults on their dignity, autonomy, and rights. I can’t imagine, if they really thought about it, that even Republican voters actually want a President Trump and the unending parade of buffoonery he’ll bring to the office. There is a reason, after all, why the National Enquirer endorsed him: stories about him sell a lot of papers.
And if Chappell’s argument moves you from voting for a third party to voting for Clinton, you should absolutely do that. Of course, you should also remember that Clinton has had a hand in policies, particularly military interventions, that have hurt people of color.
Before you condemn your friends who are choosing a third-party candidate, though, remember how this system actually works: the electoral college chooses the president. How those electoral votes are distributed by the college is determined on a state-by-state basis. You should get familiar with how your state works—if the winner “takes all” (most states and DC) or if the state divvies up electoral votes based on the popular vote (the more reasonable states of Maine and Nebraska).
In this system, your individual vote may matter very little. It’s why, until recently, I could “vote my conscience” without worry. I lived in Kansas, which was going to go Republican no matter how I voted during the years I lived there. I lived in Arkansas, which was going to go Republican no matter how I voted during the years I lived there. I moved to Utah, which was going to go Republican when I registered to vote in the state as a Democrat. At that time, I figured I’d vote for a third-party candidate—not because white privilege (which, for those reading this blog for the first time, is something I firmly believe in and work to dismantle) allows me to do so but because the Republican lock on the state allows me to do so. If Democrats wanted me to be able to vote Democrat without “throwing my vote away” rather than voting my conscience (which is also a “waste” of a vote), they could do something to change how Utah voters think about them, which would allow my vote to matter in the state.
But it hasn’t been Democrats who have made Democrats’ votes in Utah matter. It’s been Republicans.
This summer, Utah become the most interesting place on the political map. In July, Utah State Senator Mark Madsen, formerly a Republican, switched his affiliation to the Libertarian Party and, along with several other state-level politicians, is endorsing Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson. Republican leaders in the state were early defectors from the Trump campaign. They aren’t endorsing Clinton, but some of them will surely look at the electoral map and the polls on the morning of November 8 and pull the lever for her in the privacy of the ballot box. Why? Because they know that a vote for Clinton is now the best way to stop a Trump presidency. Their conscience prevents them from voting Trump, and their desire for the Republican party to survive means they would prefer Clinton (who they can fight against) to Trump (who is destroying the party from the inside).
And now polls in the Beehive State are showing a close race between Clinton and Trump—something almost unthinkable earlier in the season, perhaps even with the possibility of victory for Independent Evan McMullin. In a recent interview, Cache County Libertarian Party Chair called on voters to vote their conscience in Utah, even if that means voting for Jill Stein or Evan McMillan rather than his candidate. This is in a place where Republicans haven’t lost since 1964—the second election in which my GRANDMOTHER was eligible to vote. Now that a Clinton win is a possibility, I’m voting for her and encouraging others in the state to do the same.
You see, I don’t necessarily vote according to my conscience—at least if the sense that I don’t vote according to who I think would be the person who best reflects my personal values. Because that would be Shirley Chisolm or Charles Sumner or Eleanor Roosevelt, and none of them are running this year. And I don’t vote for the candidate who can best further my personal agenda (Can we get minimum sentencing for people who use leafblowers and some kind of public health intervention for those who chew ice?) because my personal agenda isn’t necessarily the best for the rest of the country; in short, voting my conscience is unethical. My conscience tells me to vote for the candidate who I think is most committed to the most vulnerable. In a place where the Republican, who is never the candidate most concerned about the weakest, was going to win anyway, I could vote that way, which meant a Green party vote. In a place where my vote may actually sway the outcome, I don’t vote my conscience—or, as Chappell says, “take a stand.” I fall in line and vote Democrat.
Voting my conscience is not very strategic. Even if she won a write-in campaign, my candidate Shirley Chisolm wouldn’t accept the nomination.
But for would-be third-party voters in many states, a vote for Clinton that would have otherwise gone to a third-party candidate isn’t going to stop Trump. Sure, voting for someone who doesn’t know where Aleppo is, can’t name a single world leader, and is basically uninterested in the work of the presidency isn’t wise or, given Johnson’s actual politics, even very principled for a Libertarian. But Gary Johnson is probably not all that much stupider or unqualified than Donald Trump, and voting for him, McMullin, or Stein isn’t going to keep HRC from the presidency if that vote is cast in a firmly red state.
In fact, in Utah, it is Republican defections to third parties create the possibility of 6 new electoral votes for Clinton. While Republicans considering a third-party vote in swing states should vote for Clinton to avoid the debacle of a Trump presidency, those Republicans who cannot, out of conscience, vote for Trump—because of his sexism, his racism, his violence, his lewdness—but also cannot vote for Clinton should vote for a third party, which can also help avoid a Trump win.
Third-party voters don’t expect their candidate win but to help change the political landscape because they “raise the issues that no one wants to raise and in the process they change the political debate and even policy,” according to Princeton American Studies director Sean Wilentz. Executed with consideration for the electoral college, they can also help prevent the rise of someone who has built his campaign on racism and the support of racists.
At some point after November 8, I hope that Democrats so seriously worried about the left-leaning members of the party exercising white privilege will come up with a plan that actually addresses white privilege and the oppression of people of color—topics that go far beyond the recognition of implicit bias (which is a great thing for HRC to mention in a debate) or vacuous promises about community policing and address the anti-POC voting laws that have flooded states since the Supreme Court decimated the Voting Rights Act in 2013, the income and wealth disparity between whites and people of color, mass incarceration, and the other concerns raised by Black Lives Matter activists and supporters.
I’m voting for Hillary Clinton, but I’m not holding my breath for that conversation.