I Protest Your Protest Vote

Phoenix Magazine – November 2016

Mike O’Neil

So you’re not happy with either major party’s candidate for President? If so, you are not alone.

Perhaps you think the two party monopoly on our politics is a bad thing?

Say you might stay home? Or vote for the Libertarian or Green Party Candidate?

Think again.

The time for protest votes has past.

Over twenty people sought those major party nominations.  Most voters had the opportunity to help select these candidates.

One of two people will be the next President of the United States. At this point, that is beyond any reasonable dispute. The winner will symbolize the United States to the rest of the world, guide our foreign policy, command our military, make war-or-peace decisions, select Supreme Court justices, and shape government policy in a myriad of ways.  There are profound differences in temperament, experience, and outlook between the two major party candidates.  There is a real choice to be made.

Regardless of how imperfect you see these two candidates, your vote is an opportunity to help select which of these them will become the next President, even if you view this choice as between “the lesser of two evils.” But if you choose not to vote, or to vote for a candidate with no chance whatsoever of winning election, you forfeit that right.

There may be a “feel good” aspect to rejecting both candidates. But failing to vote for one of them will do NOTHING to improve the quality of choices available in the future.

Protest votes have a role in primary elections. You can also organize, persuade, donate money and participate in candidates or causes as you see fit throughout the electoral process. But a general election for President is not a responsible time to cast a protest vote. It is the functional equivalent of casting a half a vote for each of the two major candidates or not voting at all.  This is not participating in the process; it is abdicating a civic responsibility.

What about the argument that voting for a third party will help build that party into a national party?  There have been many recent third party candidacies: Ralph Nader in 2000, Ross Perot in 1992 and 1996, John Anderson in 1980, George Wallace in 1968, and Strom Thurmond in 1948.  Only the segregationists Thurmond and Wallace got ANY electoral votes.  Many of these third party candidates were considerably stronger candidacies than those of the current election; and NONE of these had ANY chance of being elected. And NONE of these candidacies was a basis for developing a third party.  After their respective elections, no movements resulted from these candidacies.

It may be that restructuring the existing parties or developing a third party would be a good thing. But there is no basis for arguing that a better showing by a third party in this election would do anything to help elevate either the Libertarians or the Greens to major party status.  That argument was settled when each failed to reach the 15% threshold to be included in the debates. Had that threshold been reached, my argument would be weaker. A candidate who gets on the debate stage, as Ross Perot did in 1992, has a legitimate, if small, chance of being elected. Without the debate platform and the “serious candidate” status is conveys, however, public support for the Libertarian and Green party candidates, already in single digits, is far more likely to go down than up.  Neither will earn a single electoral vote.

There is an election next month. It is hard to see a credible argument that the stakes are not high.
Even if you think both of the two major candidates are flawed there are undeniable and significant differences between the major party candidates. And one of them will be our next President. You have a chance to have a say in which of the two that will be.  But only if you choose to exercise that choice.

Mike O’Neil is a sociologist and pollster who has analyzed public attitudes in Arizona and the nation for over 35 years. He is host of the public affairs program, The Think Tank, on KTAR-FM 92.3. Most of his recent articles are available at www.mikeoneil.org.