An Open Letter to Americans thinking of voting third party next week.

Part the First: For Republicans.

Listen, I’m going to be honest with you. I don’t want to waste your time. You and me, we probably don’t have much to say to each other. You’re a right-thinking freedom-loving American and I’m a pinko liberal European atheist leftie queer. If you figure that Romney just isn’t quite right-wing enough for you or that he subscribes to the wrong version of Christianity then, well, there’s not much I can say to you. It’s not my area, y’know? So you might as well just do what you were going to do anyway. The rest of this post is going to be about progressives talking about progressive things, like abortion and gays and free healthcare and whatnot. You probably wouldn’t like it. I’ll bet even looking at it is sinful or something, although I wouldn’t really know.


Part the Second: Lefties, Democrats, Progressives and Other Idealists

Okay. Think I’ve gotten rid of that other lot, so it’s safe to have a chat, just you and me. Before I start, I want to let you know that I’m on your side. Really, I am. Looking at American politics makes me alternately sad, angry, and helpless. It’s this massive system based on keeping itself going and keeping the people and parties in power where they are. And in a country as huge as the US… that’s gotta be overwhelming. I’m lucky to live in country of 4.5 million people- smaller than some of your cities- where it feels like an individual can sort-of help to make meaningful change. I can see why in a situation like yours it might seem like throwing up your hands and just going flat-out towards something better is the only damn thing to do. And when you’ve been told all your life that voting matters, I can see why protesting with your vote feels meaningful.

I get that. All of it. I really do. And I feel for you. But… I have a question for you. What the hell do you think you’re doing?

Here’s the thing. Voting is never just a matter of picking your favourite person and going with them. I wish it was. Voting is always about figuring out how your own electoral system works and using those mechanics to create the best (or least worst) outcome. This isn’t idealistic. It’s not the lovely idea of democracy for the people, of the people, and by the people that you read about in college. But this is the real world, and in the real world our actions have consequences. When it comes to politics, those consequences are deadly serious and affect people far, far outside your own life and circles. If you’re an American, your actions have consequences far outside your nation. Which, by the way, is why I’m taking the time to write to you.

On electoral systems: FPTP

Your electoral system is not one that is geared toward people voting with their consciences. Of course, none of them really are. But a first-past-the-post voting system combined with that bizarre electoral college of yours? It takes voting far outside the realm of idealism and into pure pragmatism. With FPTP, every vote is counted, once and the person with the most votes wins. It’s admittedly simplest from an arithmetic point of view. The trouble with FPTP, of course, is that it means that people can win elections where the majority of people voted against them. Let’s say we have one candidate, Jeff. Jeff is running for the Puppy-Kicking Fascists Party. On the other side, we have three candidates. Susan from the Anti-Fascist Alliance, John from the Puppy Protection Foundation and Michelle from the Can’t We All Just Get Along Centrists. Seventy per cent of the country is dead-set against Puppy-Kicking Fascism. But because they use a FPTP system, Jeff could get elected on only 30% of the vote. With FPTP, the only way to keep Jeff out of office is for Susan, John and Michelle to team up.

This is, of course, a terrible situation. It lumps Centrists, Anti-fascists and Puppy Protectors into one bunch. It means that nobody really gets to vote for what they want to focus on. It means that people are constantly more worried about preventing the other side from gaining power than in advocating their own goals.

It sucks. But it’s what you’ve got. If you’re sick to death of hearing every election that this is the most important election of all time and that it’s an us-or-them battle? Blame FPTP. And that electoral college. That’s just weird.

Alternative Voting Systems

If you want to be able to truly vote with your preferences, you lot are going to have to start seriously agitating for electoral reform. There’s a bunch of different options. Around my neck of the woods, we use something called Proportional Representation: Single Transferable Vote. It’s a bit complicated to explain how the votes are calculated, but from a voter’s perspective it’s pretty simple. Instead of marking one candidate, I put a 1 next to my favourite, a 2 next to my second favourite, and so on. If my top preference is looking to lose, all the votes they got go to the next preferences down, until there’s a clear winner. Of course, there’s still strategies for tactical voting, but they don’t leave quite the same bad taste in your mouth as FPTP.

Going back to the example above, if I want to make sure that the Puppy-Kicking Fascists aren’t elected, all I need to do is give my number 1 preference to my favourite person- say, the Anti-Fascist Allliance. Then I figure out who I’d like if they didn’t get in. Say, the Puppy Protection League. They get my number 2. And, well, if all else fails I might as well give my number 3 to the Can’t We All Just Get Along centrists. They may not be my favourite, but they’ll at least keep the PKF out of power.

STV isn’t the only alternative system, of course. There’s a ton of them, and they all tend to lead to different outcomes. STV tends to lead to coalitions and multi-party systems. It’s good for getting a government that shows the preferences of the electorate, but can be a bit pants for stability. I’m not as familiar with the rest of ’em.

If you, my American friend, want to be able to vote with your true preferences, though? You’d better get studying ’em, and get agitating for electoral reform. Because that is the only way that voting with your heart will ever be the best thing to do.

This isn’t democracy. This is triage.

USians? I get it. I get that your system is constructed against you. It’s awful. It must be awful to be stuck with it. But being in an awful situation doesn’t mean you get to throw your hands up and give up. Especially when your actions impact not just yourself, not just the hundreds of millions of your fellow Americans, but the other billions of us out here.

I don’t like Obama any more than you do. He’s alright, for an American politician. His election was a bloody brilliant moment, I’ll give you that. And we in the rest of the world are pretty damn happy that you have a President who at least knows where on the map the countries he’s planning on blowing up are. It’s good to have someone there who’s reasonably literate, extremely intelligent, who doesn’t actively despise most of the people he’s supposed to be serving, and who thinks it’s a good idea for people to be able to go to hospital when they’re sick and for women to own their own damn bodies. It’s lovely to have a PoC in charge. But, yeah, I don’t like drone attacks any more than you do, and he is, at best, a centre-right politician.

But here’s the thing. With FPTP, there is no way that you’ll get someone better into the White House this year. The choice you have- the only choice you have- is between Obama and Romney. That’s it. In your electoral system, the only way of keeping Romney out of the White House is to vote for Obama. That is a hell of an unpleasant compromise to have to make. I’m glad that I’m not the one making it. But for the sake of everyone whose lives will be made exponentially worse under Romney- women, queers, PoC, poor people, working-class people, middle-class people, sick people, people with disabilities, anyone who lives on a planet threatened by climate change– I’m begging you to get out there, get to your polling place and vote for Obama.

An Open Letter to Americans thinking of voting third party next week.

10 thoughts on “An Open Letter to Americans thinking of voting third party next week.

  1. 1

    There’s actually something to be said for voting for third-party candidates, but only if you’re not in a swing state. A good showing for a third-party candidate makes it more likely that whoever gets in will pay attention to what that candidate was offering.

    1. 1.1


      I live in a US state that is almost certainly going to go for Romney. (When I say “almost certainly,” I mean in the sense that the oxygen molecules in the air in my current room will “almost certainly” not all suck themselves over to the far corner, leaving my lungs gasping. Or in the sense that I will “almost certainly” want a beer or two on Tuesday night.) Regardless of who I actually plan to vote for, I have to think that a vote for Obama from me will make as much practical difference to the outcome as a write-in vote for my dog. (She is old enough in dog years, though I adopted her quite close to the border — so I suppose her “natural born” status is in question.)

      A vote for a third party candidate has some potential to make an impact, as Jessica Burde outlined below. (Though again in practical terms, for where I live, the third party most likely to get my vote is quite unlikely to get 5%.)

  2. 2

    Very succinct summation of the current electoral situation here in the US. I for one will be holding my nose and voting for Obama on Tuesday, mostly because the alternative is too unthinkable. On a side note I see you’re well on the way to 50,000 words this month. Congrats! I find your stuff interesting and well worth a read. Thanks.

  3. 3

    I have to admit that, although I could have voted absentee- I did not register this year. I consider it a form of protest. My vote will be counted in a state where Obama hasn’t the slightest chance of winning- but that isn’t the protest part. The protest part is because, by voting in the Presidential election, I am also required to cast votes in the local elections of my hometown/ home county, and in each election. many, many people that I know to be corrupt and evil who have held posts for many years have nobody running against them, and that will likely be the case until those people have died or decided to retire.

    And in that state, if I don’t cast a vote in every single election that is taking place, they will throw my ballot into the trash as “incomplete”. I cannot, in good conscience, vote for these corrupt public officials.

    The American political system is a source of great shame to me.The electoral college is an antiquated system that has no relevancy in this modern age when votes are no longer tallied by hand. If I could cast a single vote for Obama, I would do so, even though he will not win in my home state.

    1. 3.1

      And in that state, if I don’t cast a vote in every single election that is taking place, they will throw my ballot into the trash as “incomplete”. I cannot, in good conscience, vote for these corrupt public officials.
      That’s awful! Voting is supposed to be about choice and registering preferences, damnit.

  4. 4

    I’ve give you half right – if you are in a swing state, given the FPTP system, voting for anyone other than Obama is the equivalent of helping Romney get into office. Combine FPTP with the Electoral College and the reality is that living in one of the reddest of red states, my vote for Obama effectively doesn’t count.

    Neither does a vote for a third party, of course. Not for this election.

    The thing is (and this is another F-ed up part of the US system) a vote for a third party may count for the next election. If a third party gets 5% of the popular vote, then that third party becomes one of the major parties, with Federal recognition, government supplied ad-money, representation in debates, and everything that none of the third parties get right now. So as a pragmatic voter whose vote really doesn’t count for this years election either way, it might be worth it for me to vote third party, because if enough of us in red states pragmatically vote for the same third party, we aren’t hurting Obama and we will tip the scales to get another voice in the running four years from now. Yeah, it isn’t likely, but it’s the best (and only) chance we’ve got for getting another party in the running right now. B/c if you think either Rep or Dem will support election reform, when it’s the very problems you are pointing out that keep them in power… well, I have a nice bridge over the Hudson to sell you.

    That said, I’m voting for Obama. I think. Probably. Maybe. I’ll get back to you on that.

    1. 4.1

      Yeah, I know that election reform is seriously unlikely. I was mostly using that as a tool to discuss why different electoral systems need different voter strategies. You’ve caught me out on that one!
      That’s really interesting about the 5% for third parties. It’s one of those details of US politics that I hadn’t known about, and it’s interesting. And now I’m wondering if there’s ever been a nationwide push in deeply red (or I guess on the other side, deeply blue) to do just that? It’s also fascinating because it seems like one of the only places in a US presidential election where it’s the popular vote that counts, so it’s a way that you do get to have a say if your state doesn’t swing.
      So I guess I’m going to have to amend my OP to being an open letter to American Progressives and Lefties Who Don’t Live In Deeply Red States. Thanks for the education! 🙂

  5. 6

    I voted third party, and have done so for a long time. I’m registered in California, which Obama will comfortably win. Why should I waste my vote on someone who’s going to win that state anyway, and who I know will only continue be a “disappointment” (to those who actually expected better out of him, I mean, not to me)? Why not use my vote to make a statement about the kind of America I would actually want to see?

    Also, don’t fool yourself that it’s inevitably better to get the liberalish Democrat than the right wing Republican. It’s often possible for really awful policies to get through Congress with a Democratic President behind them, where it wouldn’t be otherwise. Take Clinton’s welfare reform, which was (and continues to be) absolutely devastating for low income people in the US. Democrats in Congress would never have allowed this through if a Republican President had proposed it. Same as in Ireland, really, where having Labour in government gives cover for a lot of things that Labour would be opposing – and organising opposition to – if they were outside it.

    1. 6.1

      Y’know, that’s the best argument I’ve ever heard against having a Democrat in the White House. It makes so much sense- Republicans have thought up worse things than just about anything a Democrat could do, so what Democrats do gets compared to feverish Republican dreams as opposed to the reality of what they could push through.
      That’s kind of terrifying.

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