The Importance of Third Parties

Marco’s Official Election Guide left off some important options—third parties. (“Go ahead. Throw your vote away.” – The Simpsons.) But I’m actually serious. Third parties play a relevant role in American politics. In the short run, voting for a third party is essentially useless. In the long run, third party voters will have a disproportionate influence on the course of the country.

Al Gore would have won the general election in 2000 if had had received 1% of the votes that Nader received. He would also have won the election if he had received votes from 0.05% of the people who didn’t bother to vote. There are two important lessons to learn from this. First, voting is important (in Florida). Secondly, major parties should care about the third party vote.

Did Ralph Nader steal votes Gore was entitled to? No. The Naderites did not vote for Gore because… they didn’t like him. In fact, they didn’t like him enough that they would rather throw their vote away than vote for him. Why didn’t they like Gore? Perhaps they thought he was too centrist. This is the first role of third parties — they keep the parties distinguishable. If you looked at a transcript of the Bush/Kerry debate and didn’t already know, would you be able to tell who was the Democrat and who was the Republican? For the past three months, both parties have been trying to woo undecided voters from the center. In many ways, Kerry’s rhetoric is to the right of Bush’s.

Voting for a party to the left or right keeps the candidates honest. Kerry verbally oppose gay marriage, but it should cost him votes from the left. Bush can proclaim his belief in health care and education, but it should cost him the votes of evil people. Kerry should have to woo the Green party just as Bush should have to woo the Libertarians. When somebody votes for a third party, the mainstream parties think, “Uh-oh. Somebody cares enough to vote but voted against us? Maybe we should care about somebody other than the center 3%.” The centrist parties do not have a right to the votes of all civic minded people. They also know that for every one person who voted for a third party, three people didn’t bother to vote because they feel the major candidates are indistinguishable.

Suppose you are a Revolutionary Worker. Your candidate of choice is Chairman Avakian. After that, you have many choices, including your grandmother, Ralph Nader, Karl Marx’s ghost, and Putin. Somewhere toward the bottom of the list, you get the capitalist pig Kerry. A few rungs below Kerry, you get the capitalist-imperialist pig-dog Bush. You have three real choices. First, don’t vote. That way you don’t give legitimacy to the system you oppose. Unfortunately, there are many other reasons you might not have voted. Yours would be lumped in with the large number of people too lazy to vote. Secondly, you can vote for Kerry. But you don’t like Kerry. Sure, he’s better than Bush, but you can hardly say he represents your interests. Finally, you can vote for Avakian. You (very marginally) increase Kerry’s chance of losing. However, you also marginally bring the issues you and your candidate are passionate about into the public light. If you can rally 1% or 2% in crucial areas, you have a real chance of forcing the mainstream parties to court your vote in the next election.

If you are voting in a swing state, your vote counts. This means you should decide carefully who you are voting for. Your vote may be the one that tips the balance. It probably won’t be. If you vote for one of the main candidates, your vote goes in with the millions of others that will be considered irrelevant after the election. If you vote for a third party, your vote sticks around as a reminder in 2008 that somebody missed an opportunity by playing too close to the center. Your vote will have a larger impact in the long run. Nobody cares how many people vote for the Green party in Massachusetts.

If you like a third party candidate better than Bush/Kerry, vote for them. If you’re in a swing state, decide which election is more important to you: 2004 or the following four or more elections.