At the Washington Post a few days ago, Ed Rogers remarked, in regards to several Senate campaigns: “While almost nobody was looking, a group of third-party candidates have sprung up on the ballot like a bunch of poisonous mushrooms.”
I like a good fungus metaphor as much the next guy, but this seems insulting; if you’re on the ballot, you’re not like a “poisonous mushroom,” you’re like a candidate—a politician running for office according to the same rules as everyone else on the ticket.
America has a third-party problem. Every time a non-Republican or a non-Democrat gets put on a substantive ballot somewhere, the tremulous op-eds and agonal analysis pieces start popping up from the Left and the Right, pundits on both sides wondering whether the third-party candidate will “take” votes from their guy and “hand the election” to the other guy. Practically speaking, this true of all candidates in every election: politicians “take” votes from each other to get elected. As a metaphor, though, it stinks: in a free republic such as ours, votes are given, not taken, and the decider of who gets the vote is the voter, not the candidate.
Anti-Third Party Political Fatalism
You can sort of get why our often-dead-eyed political process has inspired this type of take-the-vote mindset; still, voter terminology has become frighteningly washed-out and mindless. “Come November,” asks Scott Martelle in the Los Angeles Times, “what’s a fringe voter to do in this top-two system?” What, pray tell, is a “fringe voter?” Is it something constitutionally different than a “normal” voter? Martelle also makes a passing remark to “protest votes.” Isn’t every vote a protest vote—against the other candidate and against political values with which you disagree?
There is a deeply fatalistic streak to much of our politics, the notion that Republicans and Democrats will always be at the top of the ballot not merely as a matter of procedural circumstance but seemingly as a matter of immutable reality, like scientific fact; I suppose, if you believe this, then it’s understandable why you might eschew “fringe voting” for—uh, well—“mainstream voting.” But of course it’s entirely possible for things to change.
Last year, libertarian Robert Sarvis took 6.5 percent of the vote in the Virginia gubernatorial election, an historic showing for a Libertarian candidate in both the Old Dominion and the South; less than 7 percent is hardly a landslide, to say the least, but he came close to the 10 percent of votes needed to make the Libertarian Party a “recognized party” in Virginia. (When someone mentioned that both Democrats and Republicans were accusing Sarvis of “taking” their votes, I heard him remark: “They can’t both be right.”) Also noteworthy in Virginia was the victory of Dave Brat over Eric Cantor in the primaries; a nobody college professor spent 40 times less than the indomitable House Majority Leader, and the latter was trounced by a full 11 percentage points. Brat was running for the Republican nomination, not that of a third party—but if an obscure economics professor from Glen Allen, Virginia can topple Eric Cantor, well, it makes you feel as if anything’s still possible in American elections.
We’re often told that voting for a third-party candidate is tantamount to “wasting” or “throwing away” one’s vote, the implication being that votes are only valuable if they go towards either Democrats or Republicans. But your vote has intrinsic worth outside of its contributing to the election of your preferred candidate; it’s your civic prerogative and belongs to nobody but you, for instance, and it is a right hard-won after hundreds of years of struggle and hard work and progress. If you believe a candidate for office reflects your values and your political desires, you should vote for him. Don’t be discouraged by talks of “throwing your vote away;” this is a scare tactic people use to get you to vote for their candidate, and there’s no point in falling for it.
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