The Definitive Guide to Protest Voting

August 22nd, 2020 by 
Hands in a crowd possibly from protestors.

In The Simpsons Treehouse of Horror VII, you can find one of the most poignant cultural references ever made by a cartoon on a third-party protest vote:

Homer: America, take a good look at your beloved candidates. They're nothing but hideous space reptiles!
It's true, weare aliens... but what are you going to do about it? It's a two-party system; you have to vote for one of us!
Man1: He's right, this is a two-party system!
Well, I believe I'll vote for a third-party candidate...
Go ahead, throw your vote away!

Of course, Ross Perot is then shown punching a hole in a "Perot '96" hat.

So, let's say that you aren't completely happy with either a Democratic Candidate or a Republican Candidate Mitt Romney. What should you do?

Protest Votes by Category

Like most things in life, even though you've got a vague (or not so vague) sense of disappointment, you'll still have to do a bit of self-reflection and a bit of research to 'do it right', so to speak.  You need to figure out two things:

  1. Where your state falls in the electoral math - are you in a solid or lean Republican State?  Democratic? Are you in a tossup? I like to use the RealClearPolitics electoral map
  2. How deep your disappointment is -  are you mostly happy with one of the two marquee options? Are you mostly disappointed in one, but you think the other will run the country into the ground?

Now that you've figured out your local politics, it's easier to decide how to protest

Protest Vote If You Are Deeply Disappointed in a Party

I voted stickers representing a protest vote.
The worst thing you can do is not vote.

If you consider the candidate you lean towards unforgivable, vote for a third party.  Full stop. There's no need to read on for the tricky situations.

In America, there is no 'explanation' attached to your vote - that is, your 'protest vote' for the other major party candidate is indistinguishable from any other vote for that candidate

If you were going to vote for a candidate but are now switching teams after the primary, tossing your vote into a massive pile of normal votes isn't going to help shift your original lean party. All it is going to do is give the other party more political capital

If you're deeply disappointed, you need to try to shift a major party to you. You can only do that by voting for a related third party, not by spitting into the wind of millions of other voters for the other guy or girl.

Don't throw your vote away.

If You Are Mildly Disappointed in a Party

Let's say you want more government control over functions currently controlled by private companies. Or, perhaps, you want a candidate who would cut spending instead of redefining it as 'cutting planned future increases of spending'. 

Sure, you're disappointed. But there is also no denying that one of the major parties is closer to your point of view.

What you do next is dependent on where you currently live and are registered to vote. We'll look at the following three scenarios:

  • Live in a 'safe' state or city.
  • Reside in a 'lean' state or city.
  • Live in a 'swing' state or city.

If you are in a 'safe' Democratic or Republican state?

Protest Vote for the third party. 

Odds are your vote doesn't change the math in your state.  So, you like the Green Party in Texas? The Libertarian Party in California? 

You and people like you will signal the major parties to shift to pick up your votes in future elections. If, suddenly, 20% of California votes Libertarian, you better believe there will be pandering for that block

Down-ballot, it's your call - but you should check out the stance on those politicians. Politics at the state level are often different than on the national stage - look at Democrats in West Virginia or Republicans in Oregon, for example.

If you are in a 'lean' Democratic or Republican State?

Keep an eye on the rankings as the elections approach, but still think about pulling that third party lever

The same ideas apply - you are trying to signal to a major party to pivot to grab your votes in a future election.  Pay close attention to the polls though - if it gets close you'll want to pull the lever for your 'lean' party, after all.  Same idea downballot - don't automatically assume you should write off the major parties.

If you are in a swing state?

Sorry, yes: if you are in a swing state and your 'missing vote' might swing the election, help your 'lean' party. Perhaps a future electoral system (instant run-off, perhaps?) will solve the 'sad lever pull' problem.

This is a tough one. The major parties like to play on the emotions of slightly disappointed voters and claim that "a vote for {insert third party candidate} is a vote for {the other mainstream candidate!}". 

Well, no, not really - unless a small contingent of protest voters can actually swing an election. 

Think Florida, 2008 or Ohio, pretty much every election. That's right - the idea that a third party vote is actually 'wasted' vote is maybe the case one out of the four times!

Protest Votes: They're Not "Throwing Your Vote" Away

The power of third parties isn't really in competing for the win. 

Their power comes by keeping the big two honest. When splinter groups form, it's because of the unease and disappointment of former leaners. 

  • Libertarians - if you get traction, you better believe that the Republicans will come looking for your votes. 
  • Green Party - if you're disappointed and vote Green in large numbers, you better believe that Democratic allies will try to include you in their tent.

It's hard to make everyone happy, all the time. However, if you believe the hype that your vote for a third party is never worthwhile, expect to be walked upon by one of the big two. Your vote is not a waste.

So cast your votes proudly - for you will have little effect this election, but the votes you record today will shape the future of politics for years to come!

Are you disappointed enough in the major candidates to consider a protest vote?  Do you still think you'd be throwing your vote away?

Don't Quit Your Day Job...

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