Perhaps no moment in the history of television has better captured the predominant attitude of each of America’s dominant political parties better than The Simpsons’ “Treehouse of Horror VII.” In part three of that episode, extraterrestrials Kang and Kodos abduct Bill Clinton and Bob Dole, then use what they call “bio-duplication” to give themselves the appearance of being the two 1996 presidential candidates — all in an effort to ensure that one of the two aliens is guaranteed to be elected President. Springfield’s citizens should have been a lot more suspicious than they were when the two are seen doing things like “exchanging long protein strands” (in a way that sure looked a lot like Clinton and Dole holding hands), drooling profusely, and droning on in a monotone voice about “twirling towards freedom.”
At any rate, when their con is ultimately revealed at a public “debate” between the two, people are understandably concerned about their voting options. When one man in the crowd suggests that perhaps he’ll vote for a third-party candidate, Kang replies, “Go ahead, throw your vote away!”
If that response sounds familiar, that’s probably because Kang’s argument is essentially what we’ve heard from teams Trump and Clinton this year: that a (conservative) vote for anyone other than Trump is a vote for Clinton and that a (liberal) vote for anyone other than Clinton is a vote for Trump, and that such votes are therefore “wasted.” I find this argument unpersuasive for a variety of reasons.
First, I do not owe either of these candidates anything. To suggest that, regardless of how I feel, I must vote for one of the two is to get the relationship between candidate and voter completely backward. They owe me a compelling explanation of why I should vote for them, but I do not owe them anything. I certainly do not owe them my vote — to say nothing of my loyalty or my support — when no such compelling reason is put forth beyond, “Well, at least I’m not that candidate!” That Trump and Clinton have both failed to provide such an explanation is their problem, and not mine.
Second, it is utter nonsense to claim that a vote for one candidate — be it Evan McMullin, Gary Johnson, Jill Stein, or SMOD — is somehow actually not a vote for that candidate, but a vote for someone else. If I were interested in voting for Trump, I would vote for him, just as if I were interested in voting for Clinton, I’d pull the lever for her. Voting for a third option means I’m voting for a third option — for someone who provided a more compelling reason why he or she ought to have my vote. Imagine if I came up to you at breakfast and said, “But by choosing to eat Rice Krispies instead of Frosted Flakes, you’re really choosing to eat Golden Grahams!”
Third, the logic of the “wasted vote” argument typically goes something like this:
- It is all but guaranteed that either Trump or Clinton will be the next President.
- If you vote for an independent or third-party candidate, the person you are voting for is all but guaranteed to lose.
- Your vote will have no impact on the outcome of the election.
- You have thus wasted your vote.
I grant that the first part of this argument is true, and even that the second and third parts are probably true as well. But it strikes me as utterly absurd to claim that it is only worth voting if you vote for a candidate who ultimately wins. Otherwise, everyone who ever voted for a losing candidate wasted their vote! (Why, hello, Al Gore voters.) If it is only worth voting when you vote for the winner, perhaps your precinct is located somewhere north of the 38th parallel.
Even if it is true — and I believe it is — that we can be 99% certain that Trump or Clinton will be our next President, and that my single vote will have no meaningful impact on the election’s outcome (also almost certainly true), then that means that the only uncertain outcome that matters much for a dissatisfied voter like me is what I will do. And in that recognition lies a great deal of freedom. It means I can vote for whoever I want. Moreover, what many people who make this argument have probably not stopped to think about is that if voting against the established options is a wasted effort that will impact nothing, then it’s surely a wasted effort that will impact nothing to vote for those choices, too. And I’ve a hunch they probably don’t believe that.
So if you find that you’re unable to bring yourself to vote for Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, follow Kang’s advice: Go ahead and “throw your vote away.”