Monday, July 25, 2016

Third Parties and Voting on Principle

Some people make the false claim that those who reject voting for third parties in a winner-take-all political system such as the United States are against voting on principle - or favor abandoning principle in order to obtain some non-moral good.

This straw-man put-down of those who disagree with them may be psychologically comforting to those who present it, but it has little relationship to the fact of the matter.

First, a caveat. The comments that follow are applicable to political systems like those of the United States where the winner takes all and the loser gets nothing. They would not be applicable in a country where minority parties are still allowed to have representation in Parliament.

With that caveat in mind, the main argument against voting for a major party candidate instead of a third party is based on the idea that, among the principles that guide one's vote, producing the best consequences for the people at large also matters. This is one of the things that a principled voter should consider.

If we follow the claim that people should ignore the consequences of one's vote and vote only for the person who "most closely represents my views and interests" - and we take this principle to its logical conclusion - it implies that nobody should vote for anybody but themselves. Anybody that a person votes for other than themselves is somebody whose for whom the claim, "This person represents my views better than any other" is false. In other words, anybody who votes for a person other than oneself votes for a candidate other than the one who best represents her views.

To avoid this absurd conclusion, we must allow that it is permissible, at least to some degree, to vote for somebody who does not perfectly represent the views of the voter - that "perfectly representing my views" is a value that can be sacrificed for the same of some other good - such as "has the education and skill to be an effective administrator," and "will most likely produce the best results for the community as a whole."

The person who argues against voting for a third-party candidate, even where that candidate represents an overall set of values, typically argues from the moral principle that one of the things that matters in casting a vote is the well-being of the community as a whole. On this respect, supporting a third-party candidate may lead to the election of a candidate who will not, in fact, be the best thing for the community as a whole. One gets to express one's preference, but at a cost of realizing a significant loss in well-being for a number of people other than oneself.

In the 2000 election, many of the voters in Florida, claiming to value the environment, corporate responsibility for the quality of their products, and concern for the poor, performed an action that proved highly destructive of these ends. Florida ended up in a near tie between George Bush and Al Gore in a state whose electoral votes would determine the outcome of the election.

If those who had voted for a third party had voted for a major candidate party candidate who best represented their views, there is reason to believe that Al Gore would have carried the state and won the Presidency. In this situation, it is reasonable to ask of those who voted for third parties, "Did your principles include a principle for producing the best consequences for the people of the country generally?" It seems that they did not, because such a principle would not support such a vote.

Now, those who hold to this principle that consequences matter must acknowledge that this principle is only relevant to the degree that one's vote has potential consequences. In Washington DC, for example, the Democratic candidate will reliably get 85% of the vote and is all but guaranteed to get the region's three electoral votes (which themselves are so few that they will not likely sway any given election. Consequently, the principle of consequences does not apply to the DC citizen who wishes to support a third-party candidate.

Nor does it apply to any voter in a district where the opposition party will almost certainly win that district. Here, too, one cannot make a rational argument to the effect that such a vote risks bad consequences.

In fact, these same points actually argue in favor of supporting a minor party candidate where (1) one's preferred major party candidate is almost certain to win the district, or the major party candidate that least represents one's views is almost certain to win, and (2) a minor party candidate represents one's views more closely than the opposing leading party candidate. The odds of ill consequences are extremely low, and there are benefits to indicating the direction one would like the major parties to go.

I would like to repeat, these principles are only applicable in a winner-take-all political system as found in the United States. In counties that allow political representation of minority views - such as a parliamentary system where a party that has 5% of the vote still gets representation - it is generally less costly to support the party that best represents you.

IT is simply false - in fact, it counts as a type of hate-mongering - to argue that those who argue against voting for a third-party candidate under conditions where the vote has potential serious consequences have abandoned principle. They are, in fact, operating on a very important principle.

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