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  • Writer's pictureJohn Stackhouse

Why Voting for a Third-Party Presidential Candidate Is Not a Valid Option

As we Canadians observe the American presidential election in various ratios of bemusement and horror, one position seems to stick out as distinctly unlikely to bear the weight of serious ethical scrutiny. That position is to vote for a third-party candidate for president.

Lots of people are opting for this choice, according to the polls. And many of them have made thoughtful, earnest cases for their decision, including people I count as friends among my many American acquaintances. (Yes, I mean  you, Alan Jacobs.)

Both of the major-party candidates, such people generally say, are so disappointing—nay, so disgusting—that a person of Christian integrity cannot support either of them, even as the lesser of two evils. Such Christians see their vocation as maintaining an authentic witness against such terrible choices by withstanding the hysterical call to hold one’s nose and do one’s small part to prevent the Truly Bad Candidate from winning the most powerful office in the world.

For, such friends affirm, at the end of the day, or at the end of one’s life, one wants to be able to look one’s grandchildren, and one’s Lord, in the eye. One wants to be able to say, “I did not bow to expediency and betray my principles. I did not vote for either wretched alternative, but cast my vote for a truly better candidate and a truly better America.”

Alas, I fear that this sincere and noble approach to the issue badly misses the crucial ethical point. Our job in the world (per Genesis 1 & 2) is not primarily to maintain our purity, but to do our best, with God’s help, to rescue the world from its difficulties and to improve it as we can. Our calling is to make shalom, to help the world flourish, to take what God has given us and to make something of it. Our calling is not to take the single deposit God has entrusted to us and then return it to our Master at the end of days nicely intact, congratulating ourselves on how clean our hands have remained all the while.

In this election, American friends of mine are supporting Donald Trump. They want above all to see the next president appoint a more conservative Supreme Court that will overturn Roe v. Wade and protect Christians from an encroaching political correctness especially on matters of sexuality and bioethics.

They are well aware of Mr. Trump’s manifest deficits and they know that they are taking the longest of political shots by trusting in a man who has (one wants to put this gently in a decidedly un-gentle campaign) no very strong record as a political conservative, a defender of the unborn, or as a keeper of promises.

Still, they reason, Mrs. Clinton will definitely be worse. And so they intend to vote for Mr. Trump. And I can respect that.

Other American friends of mine are supporting Hillary Clinton. They want above all to see an experienced, moderate politician in the White House who will do some things they like and some things they don’t, but will not put much at risk that isn’t already at risk and likely will do some good in the process.

They are well aware of Mrs. Clinton’s deficits, manifest or otherwise, and they know that they are going to have to swallow some bitter pills.

Still, they reason, Mr. Trump will definitely be worse. And so they intend to vote for Mrs. Clinton. And I can respect that.

What, then, of the third-party voters? If some say that they really can’t tell much difference between Mr. Trump and Mrs. Clinton, or that they are terrible in their respective ways but finally amount to pretty much the same thing, then okay. One might question their political judgment (severely), but one can acknowledge the logic of their position.

If others are dyed-in-the-wool third-partiers (e.g., convinced libertarians who always vote libertarian), one sees them to be playing their long game at the expense of everyone who will suffer from the Bad Choice they enabled by parking their vote in a third place rather than supporting the only possible victor over that Bad Choice. At least, however, they are loyal to a cause.

But that’s not what I’m hearing from the most thoughtful third-party voters, especially among my Christian friends. And it is to them I address this reflection.

They seem to think that a message should be sent to the major parties that they shouldn’t be putting before us such awful choices. Voting for third-party candidates will send that message.

Well, friends, a massive chorus of voices have said exactly that for months—nay, for years. (Just start with David Frum, for example.) The media pundits have repeated it while huge survey numbers register dismay with both candidates. If they will not listen to the professionals or the polls, I doubt that third-party voting will make a difference.

In fact, the only situation in which third-party voting has demonstrably made a difference in US presidential races has been when a single, high-profile candidate ran on a clear alternative platform and decisively affected the result. The major parties then took notice in altering their later platforms and policies—from Theodore Roosevelt to John Anderson to Ross Perot. But otherwise, they didn’t, and that’s certainly not the situation today.

So there really isn’t a good political reason to vote for the third party candidates. And there also isn’t, I respectfully suggest, an ethical one, either. This election presents one of the most extreme choices ever put before the American people—a choice that makes Kennedy vs. Nixon look like Ford vs. Carter. This is no time to make a point nor to protect one’s virtue.

In fact, one hates to come within a mile of ad hominem arguments in such a nasty campaign, but third-party voting can readily appear to be to be a luxury in which only those insulated by their ethnic and financial status can afford to indulge. They will be the last to be affected by the very great difference between a Clinton and a Trump administration.

As one of your Canadian neighbours who will be deeply implicated in the result of your choice, as will indeed most of the rest of the world, may I adjure you with much affection: This election cannot be about you and your self-esteem. It is about making the world better, tomorrow and tomorrow, and not making it worse.

Don’t vote for a third-party candidate. Do the right thing.

(Postscript: I was kidding when I tweeted that Christianity Today didn’t want you to see this. It’s true that I offered it to them first. But I don’t think they had anything sinister in mind in their refusal. Or did they…?)


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