As the republican presidential primary heats up, I hear more and more republicans urging voters to unite behind a candidate who can beat President Obama. No matter, they say, if that candidate isn’t the best candidate in the race, the person with the truest principles, or the one with the clearest history of trustworthiness; sometimes you just have to choose the lesser of two evils. These arguments will intensify in the general election. Members of the major parties will criticize those who vote for third-party candidates as having thrown away their votes. The message is that once the nominees for the two major parties are both selected, it’s time to cut your losses, compromise your principles, and focus on beating the other side.
These “lesser of two evils” arguments fail for at least two important reasons: first, as an individual voter you have almost no chance of casting the deciding vote in an election; and second, your vote is more than just a tally mark in favor of your candidate—it is a powerful expression of your political will.
In a 2001 article entitled The Empirical Frequency of a Pivotal Vote, two economists named Casey Mulligan and Charles Hunter presented research showing that out of 40,036 contested state legislature elections in which over one-billion votes were cast, only nine were within one vote, and that during the previous 100 years of United States congressional elections (about 16,500 contested races) only one was decided by a single vote. The takeaway from these numbers is that an individual voter will almost never decide the outcome of an election, and predicting when and where those close races will occur is all but impossible. It could come down to how many of a candidate’s supporters were able to get time off work or whether there was a flu outbreak in an especially partisan district. In short, it doesn’t make sense to cast your vote for the lesser of two evils because the likelihood that your vote would be the pivotal one is almost nil. Parting with your principles out of fear that your one vote will throw the election (a nine in one-billion chance) makes less sense than parting with your principles on the off chance you will win the Mega Millions multi-state lottery (about a one in 176 million chance).
Given that your vote has almost no chance of deciding the outcome of an election, why should you vote at all? Answering this question highlights the second failure of the “lesser of two evils” argument: it ignores the important fact that beyond just counting towards which candidate will win, your vote expresses your political priorities. Amid all the brouhaha of ballot recounts and victory parties, it is easy to forget that your vote is more than just a tally mark. But the politicians and their staff don’t forget. Your vote sends a clear signal to present and future office-holders about what you value most in a candidate: principled decision-making or political pragmatism, consistency or compromise, moral/ethical behavior or personal charm. It also shows what principles are important to you as a voter: peace or military adventurism, liberty or social controls, property rights or coerced charity, human equality or socialism, free markets or government regulation.
When you vote for the lesser of two evils rather than for the candidate who best exemplifies your values, you send a very weak message to future office holders: that you are a loyal party member. The loyal party member has the weakest voice because candidates know they don’t have to worry about winning their approval once the nomination is secure. The independent-minded voter is the most influential because her confidence must be earned and carefully guarded; consequently, her views must be considered and respected.
Some who read this will worry that if a significant number of people in a political party were to reject the “lesser of two evils” approach, it could fracture the party’s base and cripple its chances for victory. This is probably true, and it infuriates some people—talk radio hosts especially—but the simple truth is that political parties are driven by power not principle, and your one vote will not determine the outcome of an election. So you might as well vote for the candidate who best represents your views and let someone else play the role of a sheep that will only follow an elephant or donkey.