Electoral College Myth #4: Votes cast for a 3rd-party candidate are wasted

by Tara Ross September 20, 2016 

Myth number 4 in my series on Electoral College Myths!  Please don’t miss the earlier installments here:

Myth #1: Only swing states matter, other states are ignored
Myth #2: The Founders did not trust the people
Myth #3: The Electoral College is undemocratic

MythWe are stuck with the two major party choices. A vote for a third-party candidate is wasted.

FactThe Electoral College strikes a better balance than that.

Yes, the Electoral College reinforces the two-party system, which is an overall good thing. We really don’t want to devolve into a multi-party, fractured state of affairs like you sometimes see in Europe….or like we saw in this year’s Republican primaries?! :/ As the Electoral College reinforces the two-party system, it also encourages Americans to work together and to unify. It encourages us to focus on our similarities, not our differences. It makes it hard for extremist 3rd-party candidates (e.g., George Wallace) to gain traction. All good stuff.

On the other hand, the Electoral College does allow large, reasonable third parties to influence the process. Major parties do implode and can be replaced when they become too unhealthy. Consider that Abraham Lincoln was elected as the Whig Party was dying and the Republican Party was just getting started. His win as the nominee of a relatively new party was pretty unusual, of course. Typically, third parties don’t win, but they can influence the process in other ways. Consider the election of 1992: Ross Perot ran a large, healthy, third-party campaign that year. His Reform Party ticket didn’t win even a single electoral vote, but it did capture the attention of both of the major parties. In the years that followed, both Democrats and Republicans worked to address the financial concerns of Perot voters. His campaign achieved something, even if that something wasn’t the White House.

A somewhat similar dynamic existed in 1912, when the Republican vote was split between incumbent President William Howard Taft and former President Teddy Roosevelt. In a weird twist, the incumbent President’s campaign was effectively the third-party ticket that year. In the end, Taft earned only 8 electoral votes, compared to Roosevelt’s 88. Democrat Woodrow Wilson won in a landslide with 435 electoral votes. Nevertheless, Taft’s supporters felt that they’d achieved their goal: to preserve a constitutionalist arm of the Republican Party. To be fair, Roosevelt supporters were more focused on the flip side of this same coin: They felt that Taft’s supporters had handed the election to Wilson.

This year is an interesting year, to say the least. What does a third-party vote look like this year? Is it like 1912 & 1992 . . . or could it possibly be more like 1860?

If we look to historical precedent, the answer is pretty simple: It’s extremely unlikely that a third-party candidate could win. The most likely scenario is that we end up with either President Clinton or Trump. But here’s the counterargument to that prediction: Polls show that the single biggest coalition in this country is the coalition of people who don’t want Clinton OR Trump. If that coalition ever got a face, then who knows what might happen? After all, the Electoral College rewards coalition-building.

Going back to the original question: Does the Electoral College rob voters of choices? No, it does not.  But it does make the decision to vote third-party a more difficult one: When are things so bad that you will deviate from one of the two major parties? Do you think that enough people agree with you? Will your third-party vote have the effect that you want it to have? Are you willing to cast that ballot only if you are guaranteed an 1860-like outcome? Or are you satisfied with a 1912 or 1992-like statement?

In short, with the Electoral College in place, a third-party vote is best cast thoughtfully, not emotionally. But voters are not “stuck” with only two choices unless they believe they are.

Please don’t miss my new kids’ illustrated book about the Electoral College!
Signed copies available at the bottom of THIS PAGE.
If you have Amazon Prime, shipping will be much cheaper with (unsigned) copies HERE.

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