A lot of people, especially conservatives, are convinced that neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton is morally fit to be president. It is hard to argue with that proposition. The question is what to do about it. So as voters begin to confront the unappetizing choices they face on Election Day, it is time to address the question head on.
The first thing to do is to dispense with the non-sequiturs that are being tossed around with such wild abandon, the most popular of which is that a vote for Trump is a vote for Clinton and vice versa. In fact, voters do not face a binary choice. There are lots of options that are well worth considering. But that requires framing the question properly.
Talk to a Clinton voter and the first thing you’ll hear about is how awful Trump is. Fair enough. Talk to a Trump voter and the first thing you’ll hear about is how awful Clinton is. Again, fair enough. That said, poor question framing has induced these voters to mistakenly believe that a vote for Clinton is a vote against Trump and vice versa.
Let’s be clear: voting is an affirmative act. Full stop. A vote for Hillary Clinton is a vote for Hillary Clinton. Likewise a vote for Donald Trump is a vote for Donald Trump. There is no ballot line that says “Not Clinton” or “Not Trump”. To pretend otherwise is an act of extravagant self-deception.
Or perhaps intellectual laziness. In the heart of every “not” voter lurks the naïve belief that “every vote matters”. The endless repetition of this particular myth has persuaded otherwise sensible people to buy into it. In fact, the probability that any one vote will be decisive is so vanishingly small as to be virtually non-existent. Among other things it would require there to be exactly one decisive popular vote that flips a decisive state and with it, the Electoral College. The belief that one vote may do this in the over 100 million that will be cast in all the 50 states is a testament to the power of innumeracy.
Unfortunately, the two major political parties actively encourage this sort of binary thinking. It serves their interests to herd voters into believing that their choices are limited to the major party nominees. Thus we hear about the “obligation” to vote and the importance of not “wasting” a vote on third party nominees or for that matter, write-in candidates.
Except that we do not have an obligation to vote. And it is important to understand that a vote is simply an expression of preference. No more and no less. A vote for a third-party candidate is no less an expression of preference than a vote for a major party candidate. And not to put too fine a point on it, voting for someone with whom you fundamentally disagree, or even deem unfit for office, is irrational. Furthermore this type of strategic voting is detrimental to democracy because it serves to pad the vote totals of the major party candidates at the expense of alternatives. In so doing it conveys misinformation by contributing to the illusion that the policy prescriptions of the major parties have more support than they actually do.
So, to those who are sensible enough to be dismayed, repulsed, revolted—take your pick—by both the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates: do not be cowed. Vote third party or sit out the presidential election. It just may send the right message for 2020.