I know what you’re thinking–“you’re just throwing away your vote!” I disagree. To help me explain why, I’m going to rely on the classic “Calculus of Voting” equation (see this Wikipedia article for an explanation, although I am using the John Aldrich (1993) version):
R = PB + D - C
Which says that voting is rewarding(R) only if the probability(P) of the vote changing the outcome and the benefit(B) you’ll receive from the party you favour winning plus the psychological boost you get from doing your democratic duty(D) is greater than the cost(C) of voting.
I’ll use my vote for the presidential candidates this election cycle as an example. The probability of my vote changing the outcome is essentially zero. Think about it. The State that I live in, Illinois, will almost certainly be overwhelmingly Democrat. The only way my vote would matter in terms of changing the outcome is if the Illinois election were perfectly split 50-50 and my vote was the tie-breaker. I’ll go out on a limb here and say that’s about as likely a scenario as me winning the Great British Baking Show. For the record, not a fan of the new season.
Next, how do I evaluate the personal benefits I would receive if the Democrats beat the Republicans, or vice versa? If I evaluate it purely in material terms, the Democrats winning would be better for me since I am in a lower income bracket, and they are more likely to pass social welfare policies. But it is hard to evaluate because I don’t know the full extent of the policies they plan to pass. Nobody does; that would depend upon their margin of victory, the collective mood of the country, the performance of the economy in the next few months, and many other factors.
The psychological benefit I get from voting, on the other hand, is huge. I was immensely proud to become an American citizen 6 years ago, and so I do not take the democratic process for granted. Although I feel like voting is an important responsibility of citizenship, to me it is still more than that–it’s a privilege.
And the costs of voting are low. I sent in a mail-in ballot, I did most of my research on the local races in one afternoon of web searches, and I am already totally familiar with my ideological preferences.
So for me, it makes perfect sense to vote because even though I cannot affect the outcome (at least in the presidential race) and the differential benefit I receive is murky, the psychological boost I get from voting clearly outweighs the negligible costs.
But how does this relate to third parties? Well, I did in fact vote third party for several of the races. I did so when the ideological position of the third party was closer to my own than the Republicans or Democrats. I call that rational voting. It is not “throwing away your vote” because the odds of your vote deciding the contest are already infinitesimally small (at least in the presidential contest). It is irrational to vote strategically when your vote will almost certainly never be the tie-breaking vote. As I already indicated, this is obviously more true in national elections than local ones, but even if a local election is within 200 votes (which would be an extraordinarily close race), that still means that the probability of your vote being the tie-breaking vote is less than 1 percent. In that case, why not just vote third party if the third party fits your ideological preferences better? Isn’t that the whole point of elections–to express your political preferences?
It can also be a matter of conscience. I voted third party in the presidential election and don’t regret it at all. Why should I have to choose between Pres. Trump (whom I despise) and Sen. Joe Biden (whom I like better, but still have reservations about)? I don’t have to choose between these two decrepit candidates. Instead, I can vote third party which signals both my disapproval of the main candidates and allows me to vote for a candidate who is more aligned with me ideologically. And the best part is that I’m not wasting my vote any more than a vote for Trump or Biden would be in Illinois. I get to vote my conscience in the most rational way possible–selecting a candidate I actually like! To me, doing the usual strategic voting routine is more irrational, that is, holding your nose and voting for a bad candidate because you’ve overestimated the potential of what your single vote is capable of.
I suppose the obvious caveat to my pro-third party stance is that there is a potential spoiler effect. We saw this most famously with the campaign of Ralph Nader in 2000, where he drew off enough support from otherwise Democratic voters to allow Bush victory. For a liberal who found Gore too conservative and thus voted for Nader, getting Bush instead was a disastrous outcome. That may be true in the short term, but anticipating a large third party and its ideological bent, can also help the two main parties cater to the ideological needs of these third parties to draw off support. We have seen this with the more libertarian streak in the Republican party. Furthermore, it doesn’t invalidate the logic of voting as an individual. One cannot know what others will do, and it is still incredibly unlikely that one’s individual vote will tilt the election one way or another, and thus voting ideologically rather than strategically is still more useful in my opinion.