How to Vote for 3rd Party Candidates without Worrying You’re Throwing Your Vote Away

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tags: election 2016



Okla Elliott, Ph.D., an assistant professor of English at Misericordia University in Dallas, Pa.


The #NeverTrump and #NeverHillary movements are gaining steam. A grassroots call for Bernie Sanders to run as an Independent is likewise increasing in popularity. Voter displeasure with establishment politics is at a historic high. And Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson is at 11 percent in a three-way matchup with Clinton and Trump in a recent Monmouth poll. With all this in mind, now seems like an apt time to revisit the issue of third-party politics.

The question, however, is: How do we move beyond the tired and fruitless script on this topic? We’ve heard that compromising is just choosing the lesser of two evils. We’ve heard that voting third party is throwing your vote away – or worse yet, helping to elect the candidate you disagree with most. So how do we move the conversation forward? How do we make it safe to vote for third-party candidates?

Few Americans have heard of ranked-choice voting (RCV), yet there are currently 11 American cities that use RCV to elect their mayor, city council, and other local officials – including major cities such as Berkeley, Cambridge, and Minneapolis. And a variation of RCV is used nationwide in Ireland, a small yet relatively densely populated country, and in Australia, one of the largest yet least densely populated nations on Earth.

There are several variations of RCV, some more complex than others, but the simplest form would have voters rank the candidates #1, #2, #3, and so forth when there are more than two candidates for a single position. For example, left-leaning voters might rank Green Party candidate Jill Stein as #1, Hillary Clinton #2, Gary Johnson #3, and Donald Trump #4. If Stein does not receive the greatest number of votes, ballots cast for her would automatically shift to Clinton, and then if Clinton doesn’t get the greatest number of votes even with Stein’s votes added in, those initial Stein votes would then shift to Johnson. In this way, Green Party voters do not have to fear helping Trump win the election, yet they also do not have to begrudgingly ignore their deep-seated convictions and outright vote for Clinton.

Renowned economists Partha Dasgupta of the University of Cambridge and Eric S. Maskin of Harvard University concluded in their 2004 Scientific American article that “when more than two choices present themselves, voters should submit a ranking of candidates and that majority rule … should determine the winner.” They likewise conclude that RCV offers “an accurate representation of the voters’ wishes” more so than any other voting system.

Despite its successful implementation in U.S. cities and entire countries, there are obstacles to RCV, foremost among them being an almost total silence on the subject in the national political conversation. Just as importantly, Democratic and Republican politicians have no incentive to push measures that would establish RCV, since neither major party has anything to gain by doing so, as RCV would almost exclusively help third-party candidates and voters. It is therefore largely by ballot referendum that RCV becomes law, and given that so few Americans have heard of RCV, it is rare that it ends up on the ballot – rare, but not unheard of. There are the aforementioned cities that have already passed RCV, and the state of Maine will vote on using it for all statewide elections this November.

This is almost certainly the only way RCV will ever be implemented in the U.S. Activists will have to gather the requisite number of signatures to make the issue a ballot referendum that voters can decide on directly, cutting out the major-party politicians who have no interest in seeing such legislation passed. But in order to achieve this, to say nothing of having the ballot referenda eventually pass, a major educational campaign explaining RCV would have to be undertaken to get activists involved and to convince the public that it would be a better system than our current one.

This presidential election cycle has been full of upsets and surprises, largely caused by voter dissatisfaction with politics as usual. Perhaps one of the lessons we should take away from this is that it’s time to implement RCV at all levels of government in order to offer voters a greater range of choices.



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