Arguments against third parties and how to counter them

Michael J. Cavlan gave us this article by Matthew Reece. Michael  is working on building a Green Party in line with its 10 values. If we are to make meaningful changes then we must advance  beyond looking at the two major parties of the duopoly as a football game. It is more important to be right than to vote for a winning candidate that will keep us on the wrong path.

Every election year, we hear members of the establishment tell us that voting for a third party candidate for president is “wasting a vote.” Let us explore some common arguments that are used to suggest this, and how such arguments can be refuted.

Voting for a third party candidate is a wasted vote because the candidate cannot/will not win.

This is actually two distinct arguments, as the case of a third party candidate being unable to win is much different than a prediction that said candidate will not win. Let us examine both cases:

1. Voting for a third party candidate is a wasted vote because the candidate cannot win.

Anyone who claims this is claiming that the election process in America is rigged. Let us set aside the matter of whether this is actually the case and focus narrowly on the claim being made. A person who believes this should be trying to convince people either not to vote at all in protest of a corrupt system or to take up arms to start a second American Revolution, not trying to convince people to vote for Republicans or Democrats.

2. Voting for a third party candidate is a wasted vote because the candidate will not win.

Anyone who claims this is claiming to be able to predict the future. We know that all psychics are charlatans and frauds, so such a claim destroys the credibility of the arguer. This argument is also an example of a logical fallacy known as circular reasoning. Don't vote third party because they won't win? How are they supposed to win if no one votes for them? Furthermore, this argument assumes that winning is everything, which is false. Third parties have to contend with obstructionist ballot access laws passed by Republicans and Democrats, which typically require a national-level or state-level candidate of a third party to win a certain percentage (usually 5%) of the vote in order to keep the third party on the ballot. Failing that, the third party must make a petition drive to collect signatures, typically numbering in the tens of thousands, and then (in many cases) fight off a challenge by lawyers and operatives of the two major parties.

N.B.: It is helpful to apply the arguer's logic to major-party candidates. For example, consider the U.S. presidential election of 2008. Statistical analysis shows that Republican nominee John McCain had no chance of defeating Democratic nominee Barack Obama. Therefore, by establishment logic, a vote for John McCain was a wasted vote. This logic can also be extended to the presidential elections in each state. Without loss of generality, a vote for a Republican candidate in a state that is safe Democrat is a wasted vote. After this counterargument, the arguer must either admit that using ability to win as a gauge of whether a vote is wasted is illogical, or accept that votes for anyone except the winner of an election are wasted, a premise which leads to a one-party dictatorship in which voting is meaningless.

You have to choose the lesser of two evils. A vote for (insert third party candidate's name here) is a vote for (insert name of major party candidate the arguer dislikes here).

This is clearly false, because if it were true, no other options would be on the ballot. Typically implicit in this argument is a logical fallacy known as appeal to fear. The arguer usually attempts to persuade voters to vote for their major party candidate by saying that a third party vote is a vote for the opposition candidate, who would be the worst possible choice. But this argument assumes that one would consider voting for a major party candidate if one's third party candidate were not in the election. If this is not the case, then the argument is invalid. In fact, the argument is always invalid because votes do not “belong” to Republicans, Democrats, or anyone else other than the voters who cast them.

Because of Duverger's Law and the nature of the American system, there will be a two-party system.

If this were true, we would expect to see a two-party system arise between Democrats and Greens in a place like Massachusetts, or between Republicans and Libertarians in a place like Utah, places where one of the two major parties has essentially vanquished the other. The absence of such a development seems to suggest that Duverger's Law is not ironclad.

Historically, third parties have not won the Presidency.

This is a statement of fact, unless we consider Abraham Lincoln's victory in 1860 to be the election of a third party candidate. But this is simply a statement of fact, not a proper logical argument. There is however, an implied argument that the past predicts the future. Such a prediction only holds weight if we allow it to. As the saying goes, if you keep on doing what you have always done, you will keep on getting what you have always gotten. To say that the past failure of third parties to win the Presidency creates an unalterable future in which no third party candidate can win the Presidency is to claim that the people have no real choice under the current system. If this is so, then it would make little sense to vote at all, since the established duopoly cannot be removed by democratic means.

Your third party vote will accomplish nothing.

False. See the above argument about ballot access laws. Also consider the historical impact of third parties. While the Prohibition Party and the Socialist Party of America never won any presidential elections, both succeeded in getting their platforms adopted by the major parties after spoiling enough elections and gaining a large enough portion of the popular vote. There is no reason why this could not happen again, and one possible way for a third party candidate to eventually win is to have ideas that are popular for an extended period of time that the two major parties simply refuse to implement.

If your third party candidate was any good, he/she would have won the primary of one of the two major parties.

Perhaps there was a time when this was true, but it is certainly not true today. The increased statism and polarization of the two major parties have made it difficult, if not impossible, for a libertarian-leaning candidate to win the nomination of a major party. Centrist candidates also face problems when it comes to invigorating the more extreme bases of their parties. It is worth considering that moneyed interests, especially since the Citizens United v. FEC case, may be manipulating the nominating processes of the two major parties to nominate certain types of candidates while keeping certain other types of candidates from winning. Such a scenario leaves only the independent and third party routes for a true grassroots candidate.

There is not enough time for a third party to achieve sufficient power to influence events.

If this is true, then it makes little sense to vote at all. The duopoly has set us on the course that the arguer claims will lead to destruction, and we cannot solve our problems by using the same thinking we used when we created them. If this is false, then as time is indeed a precious resource, we should not squander it by supporting establishment candidates and thereby wasting an opportunity for change.

As you can see, the “wasted vote” theory has no logical leg upon which to stand. So whenever you hear someone use this argument, send them to this article for a proper refutation.



1-Third Parties Have Long History of Shaping, Reshaping American Politics   There are over 130 elected Greens including some mayors. In addition there are many more that run and lose, but still get a message out. We have Green Congressional Candidates who get in the 10-20% range.

2-How often do third-party candidates actually spoil elections? Almost never. 

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