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…?)

18 Responses to “Why Voting for a Third-Party Presidential Candidate Is Not a Valid Option”

  1. Kate

    I find it very difficult to respect a decision to vote for Trump.

    • Jeff

      That’s funny, I find it very difficult to respect a decision to vote for Clinton.

      See how fun this game is?

        • Alison Ralph

          Hillary and Donald are not remotely in the same league and yet, the vitriol against her is out of control. The main reason is the people think Donald is going to remove rights for LGBTQ people and remove reproductive rights for women. He won’t. He’s not on their side. He’s always only ever on his own side. And his bank accounts side more accurately. Which I suppose fits with the American ethos of pulling yourself by your own bootstraps and not being responsible for or considerate of anyone but yourself. So enjoy.

          • Steve Wilkinson

            Alison, while I don’t support Trump, I can understand why many do. I think you might be underestimating how bad Hillary really is (not just *could potentially be*, but has a proven track record of, with no indication of change).

            Aside from the deeply divided hot button issues (as you noted… though I’d certainly reframe them in terms of language), Hillary is so many things that *should* be quite offensive to Democrats, given their talk and appeal to their base.

            1) She is incredibly corrupt. Even if you you think the various things she’s under investigation for (or has been in the past) aren’t big-deals, it would be pretty hard to argue she’s a straight-shooter (e.g. even if the email contents aren’t damning, what innocent person resists turning over the evidence, destroys most of it, and hires professional to scrub the evidence?) Or, consider the Clinton Foundation. At best, it’s so horribly mismanaged to have accidentally done tons of stuff wrong… at worst it’s put $billions in the pockets of the Clintons (at the expense of charity projects the money was supposed to support), and pay-to-play favors for corporations and foreign powers.

            2) She seems completely on-board with mega-corporate interests instead of her constituents. It’s kind of hard to believe a Democrat is the anti-Bernie in that regard.

            3) International policy. You know those millions of refugees? Heard of Libya, Syria, Iraq, etc.? I thought Democrats were so disgusted with Bush Jr and his policies. Well, Obama has continued and escalated that… and the war-brass are excited about the potential of Hillary, as they think Obama was too soft. Hillary is all in on the Wes Clark 7 (google it). And, she’s on-board with the demonizing of Russia. You might want to check this article: https://www.firstthings.com/article/2016/10/the-cold-war-is-over

            So, even if I were on-board with her social policy and pet liberal issues (which I’m not), she’s extremely dangerous in terms of foreign policy, economics, and changing the corruption of Washington.

            Is Trump dangerous too? Quite possibly. But, at least he’s unknown… i.e.: what will he do vs crazy (over the top?) talk. And, considering the condition of Washington, many want to see a wrecking-ball taken to it. I’m with them on that to some extent, but there are too many bad things about the current Republican platform for me to support that either.

  2. Lynn Betts

    JS: “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.”

    1st: Does it change the ethical balance if one cannot vote for a particular candidate without tarring one’s self with their immorality? I think it does, and that we may be in just such a situation.
    2nd: Doesn’t it reveal a lack of faith in God, or too much faith in humanity, or both, if we take the perspective that, while our efforts are important, “it all depends on us else all is lost?” (A common imperative, especially expressed by Falwell, Jefress, Grudem, et. al.)

    • John

      I don’t know why my earlier attempt at a reply didn’t show up here. I’ll try again:

      1. I don’t know what you mean. Voting for anyone short of a saint means implicating oneself, I suppose, in their shortcomings and sins. But what follows from that?

      2. I don’t think “it all depends on us,” but a lot does, under God’s mysterious providence, including the election of truly terrible leaders, as the world history of the last century so clearly shows. So while I maintain faith in God such that I don’t think we can truly blow ourselves to smithereens, I do think we can, and have, done huge damage to our neighbours and to the planet, and we dare not take lightly God’s willingness to allow us to do still more.

      • Lynn Betts

        My reference to our ethical situation being impacted when one cannot help being tarred by the immorality of the one you support should probably have said “when one’s own morality cannot avoid being ‘identified with’ the morality of the one you support, simply on the egregious demonstrations of their immorality.” I think we may have come to this this year, in which case a third party choice might well be the most ethical choice.

        JS (to Layton Friesen): “…in a difficult situation such as this, one’s priority must be on effecting good, not on maintaining one’s own spotlessness. To be sure, I do not mean doing anything that we must later repent of–”

        I am confused by your references to “not maintaining one’s own spotlessness” and “not doing anything that we must later repent of” and then to “doing the will of God” so we have no need of repentance. One’s personal holiness (sanctification?) IS developed precisely through the making of choices that align with God’s will…isn’t it? By making Christlike choices we become more like Him in our character? So making such choices is a proper things do and exhibits a proper concern for one’s Christlikeness.

        So, “Doing the best we can to effect good” must certainly include the “good” of one’s own holiness (how can there be some kind of ‘hierarchy of priority’ for this in effecting good?) and concern for one’s external witness.

        To the first, our own sensibilities to sin can easily become numbed when we acquiesce to another’s sinfulness, convincing ourselves that we must do it for a greater good, and so we lose some of our spiritual sensitivity to evil, which reduces our ability to represent Christlikeness. The more we acquiesce, the less sensitive we tend to become.

        This all then carries over into our witness…again no hierarchy of priorities is needed, as far as I can see, but have Falwell, Jefress, Grudem, et. al. done good with their witness (beyond their core fans)?

        Good article you linked to by David Frum, by the way.

  3. Steve Wilkinson

    It is worth noting, that due to the electoral college system, if the votes are close between Trump and Hillary, and if a 3rd party candidates won in a couple of states (ex: Utah), neither Trump or Hillary would have enough to win. That would put the outcome into the hands of Congress. They would then have to pick Trump, Hillary, the next highest vote (Johnson?), or the current VP becomes president.

    That’s entirely possible, though I don’t have a good read on how likely. With a bit of organization of a pissed-off voter base, it could easily happen (though I’m not seeing that organization with only a few days left).

    The other thing that is important to note about this election, is that the reason we have the choices we do, is due to corruption, the media, and an upset voter base.

    The Democrats are split between Hillary and Bernie (night and day), and many are *really* upset about the DNC corruption that took it away from Bernie.

    Likewise, Trump is a big upset to the Republicans, split between various factions all intent on messing things up (for politics as usual, or the Republican party). For typical Republicans, almost any of the other candidates should have been much better choices. But, too many traditional Republicans are sick of the party and platform, IMO.

    And yes, now that we’re down to it, many on both sides are in a hold your nose type situation, while others aren’t going to play the game set before us. (cf above about messing up the status quo.)

    And, in that I think lies the problem. If the intent is to mess up the system, then Hillary is certainly a ‘business as usual’ vote to the extreme. (IMO, she’s about the worst of both parties wrapped up in one…. extreme liberal on many of the social hot-button issues, corrupt, in the pocket of special interests and corporations, very pro-war, anti-US sovereignty, and for meddling with foreign governments to benefit the ‘interests’ of the USA.) Half that list are things traditional Democrats complain about as being Republican faults.

    The reasons for voting for her seem to be… she’s a woman (sexist), Trump is crazy (fair enough), or ‘I just vote Democrat no matter what’.

    And for Trump, it seems to be those wanting to overthrow things, Hillary is much worse, or the ‘I just vote Republicans no matter what’.

    None of these seem to be good positive reasons.

    And, while there are certainly some general platform differences, there also aren’t great differences on some really crucial things.

    Supreme Court – I suppose some good choices here *could* make a difference, but only if the Supreme Court gets back to the Constitution (w/o post-modern interpretation) and proper checks and balances are in place.

    Freedom of Speech – both candidates, for example, backed the FBI’s view in the recent encryption debate. I see little difference here, other than they both want to spy on the citizens for different purposes.

    Foreign policy – it’s a race between dumb and dumber, and I’m not sure which is which. The military elite are excited about Hillary, as supposedly Obama is too soft on foreign policy (and given what’s happened under his watch, that should terrify us all!). Trumps redeeming quality might be wanting better relations with Russia… but need I even mention things like diplomacy issues or some of the crazy things he’s said? I’ll bet either continues with making the industrial military complex happy. You know all those refugees? Obama, Hillary, Trump… peas in a pod.

    Economics – very little difference in core philosophy as far as I can tell, at least between the parties. They each have their pet projects, of course. Hillary is as corrupt as the day is long and Trump has some wrecking ball ideas… pick your poison.

    John, I guess the problem is that while the outcome might be different, I don’t see either as necessarily more positive than the other. Corrupt liberal warmonger, or flaky right-wing nut… riding fundamentally broken party platforms… which is better?

    I can tell you, at least from my viewpoint, on an issue here or there, but I’m having a really hard time picking overall. And, the problem is that we get the overall, not individual issues.

  4. Steve Wilkinson

    Also, I think much more of our focus should be on Congress. A great resource for keeping on eye on what is happening there is a podcast called Congressional Dish. While I very much disagree with some of the viewpoints of the host (she’s a liberal ‘progressive’), the service she is providing is crucial.

    Liberal or conservative, you’re likely NOT going to like what is happening in the branch of gov’t where we have the most power. And much of the judicial and executive overreach is taking place because the folks in Congress aren’t doing their job.

  5. Brian Moss

    We are a country divided. We need a president who can restore the unity of this country. We need a president like Abraham Lincoln, the last third party candidate to successfully be elected as President of the United States.

  6. Layton Friesen

    John, I assume that when you said “This is no time to make a point nor to protect one’s virtue” you were using “virtue” in the cheap, derisive way it is sometimes used now, and not in the classical Christian understanding of it. I hope you are not suggesting this is no time for morals, or that somehow we all just need to give up our naive concern for holiness and our petty desire for personal sanctity, and just get on with the Niebuhrian project of doing what we know will need to be repented of.

    • John

      No, I meant that in a difficult situation such as this, one’s priority must be on effecting good, not on maintaining one’s own spotlessness. To be sure, I do not mean doing anything that we must later repent of–Bonhoeffer sounds like that sometimes, and I don’t think that’s the best way to view doing these extraordinary, hard things. If you’re doing the will of God, then you don’t need to repent. And the will of God sometimes means doing things that normally would be wrong, and will never be needed in the world to come, but are required now to maximize shalom. (I expect, however, a good Mennonite such as yourself will find this incredible and offensive. But then, I do sustain a fairly extensive critique of a Yoderian/Anabaptist view of such matters in “Making the Best of It,” as you may already know…!)

  7. Brian Dant

    John, I’m wondering if you’d be willing to respond to the “witness” argument: Voting third party upholds the witness of the Church, and a witness to the coming Kingdom. This argument would not be primarily concerned with the voter’s virtue, nor with a future-oriented shalom argument (“I’ll vote third party now in hopes that said third party has a real chance in later election cycles”). Is there any shalom in maintaining a tangible expression of the radical or ideal position? (Similar to the intentionally impoverished person who wears second-hand clothes and makes me realize that my justifiably middle-road position is actually further from the good than I once thought.)

    Is there any space for this in the MTBOI ethical framework, or does the prioritization of immanent shalom override this? (I do see the other comments referencing witness, and your statement: “Such Christians see their vocation as maintaining an authentic witness against such terrible choices by withstanding … ” but I don’t see direct engagement with this).

    As always, thanks for writing—keep up the good work of making sure we are thinking well!

    • John

      Paradoxically, given both the title and the last lines of the piece (!), I do believe that God sometimes calls Christians to different behaviours in vexed situations. So theoretically I do make room for Christians taking a “witness” stance in at least some circumstances.

      I don’t see them here, however. I don’t see any of the third party candidates, or parties, offering a serious alternative AND I think the need of the moment is so dire that for Christians to pick *this* moment to preserve their sense of holiness or to offer a “we disapprove of the two main parties and their candidates” testimony seems literally unethical to me. That’s why I’m trying to make all the allowances I can (and you can tell I’m squirming as I do so) while still pressing hard on my main point.

      Thanks for asking…and, of course, I could well be wrong about any, or all, of this. I have to pursue my vocation as I see it, though, of course, and in this case I think it is to help my American friends make the best choice in a very bad situation.

  8. John

    350 million people, and those are the best two. Tragic, sorry if you would be fearful of your daughter working for the man how can you vote for him. That said if you would not give a dime to a charity run by the other candidate because she does not understand the scared trust between a donor and the charity I would have a hard time voting for her. One thing I firmly believe in is that voting for a third party candidate is not a wasted vote, those vote make a very large statement. A quality candidate from either of the two parties would have been an easy win. The Republicans have no one but themselves to blame.

  9. Patrick Mitchel

    Thanks for this, both the tone and content. As another non-American looking on from the outside however, I find it impossible to agree with your respect of your Christian friends’ decision to vote for Trump. I don’t see an ‘equivalence of badness’ between Clinton and Trump. You talk of ‘longest of long shots’ to back Trump. I can only see it as reckless irresponsibility for a Christian to vote for such a man who has none of the virtues required for Presidency (to put it mildly). He is a manifest danger to democracy. The potential harm he could well do nationally and globally (and no one could say that they had not had obvious warnings during the election) far outweighs the distaste and compromise involved in voting for Clinton.


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