How do you vote in an election when there is no lesser of two evils?
We’re used to having to make a tough choice between candidates we don’t like. But what do we do in a year when there is no basis for making that decision? What about a year when it’s a choice between one pathological liar and another and between one believer in government power and another?
What do we do when there is no acceptable presidential candidate who has a chance of winning?
If, like me, you find yourself in that position, here are four things to keep in mind as you think about going to the polls (or not) on Tuesday.
1. Vote for none of the above.
Some have suggested adding a “none of the above” option on the ballot, and if it gets enough votes, we get a do-over election. The only real problem with this idea is the risk that “none of the above” would win every single time.
But we already have a “none of the above” option. Show up to vote, but leave the presidential ballot blank. Find something else to vote for. If anybody is looking—and they’ll be hashing out the voting statistics of this election for years—then you will be counted as someone who was engaged with politics and showed up to register your views, but who found all the presidential options lacking.
2. Pursue your political values down the ballot.
Executive power is growing out of control, and that’s likely to get worse under both of the major party candidates on the ballot this year. But we are still far from being a dictatorship, and the presidency is not the only office with any power. If none of the presidential candidates represent your values, then find somebody or something on the ballot that does. Look at congressional and state and local races and referendums.
I’ll be showing up to vote to re-elect my congressman, Dave Brat, the libertarian college professor who unseated establishment candidate Eric Cantor in the Republican primaries two years ago. I don’t think Brat is at risk of losing, even in a Democratic “wave” year, which this isn’t. But I’m looking forward to being able to vote for something of which I affirmatively approve.
There are no other races on the ballot; there’s no Senate election for Virginia this year, and state and local elections are held on odd-numbered years. But there are a couple of amendments to the state constitution, including one about “right to work” protections which I will probably vote for.
The most likely outcome on Tuesday is that Hillary Clinton will win the presidency, and she and President Obama have been trying to use this election to roll back big Democratic losses in Congress and state legislatures. The best way to restrain the power of a President Clinton and limit the damage from her victory is to keep the state and national legislatures under the control of the opposition party.
3. Choose your protest vote carefully.
You can always choose smaller “third party” candidates as a protest vote. No, it won’t make a difference to the outcome of the election, but it will have the same impact as a “none of the above” vote. It will help deprive the winner of any sense of having a mandate.
I don’t think you should bother with a write-in vote, or at least don’t rely on it as a way of sending a message to anyone but yourself. Write-ins are too diffuse, dividing too small a vote among too many different names. (I doubt more than a handful of people will follow my idea of voting for the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man.) I have never heard of a write-in campaign being noticed in any way.
Third-party candidates are a better option to register a protest, but be wary. Yes, it can serve as a protest vote, but it can also serve as a vote of approval, not just for the specific candidate, but for the fringe party itself, which can have real practical effects.
That is why I won’t be voting for the Libertarian candidate. Whatever the merits and demerits of Gary Johnson, my vote would not help him because he’s not going to win. But it might help the Libertarian Party. If their presidential candidate gets 5% of the vote—just above where he is right now in the polls—the party meets the threshold to receive federal funds in the next election cycle. A government-funded Libertarian Party would be deeply ironic, but they’re not ruling it out.
So a vote for Gary Johnson is a vote to give the Libertarian Party millions of dollars to spend on who knows what candidate in the future. Consider the experience of the Reform Party in 2000, after Ross Perot’s performance in 1996 gave them a big pot of federal funds that was up for grabs. Their 2000 primaries were mobbed by opportunists ranging from Pat Buchanan to David Duke to some guy who believed in transcendental meditation—and, you guessed it, Donald Trump.
If there’s one year the Libertarian Party has proven that they don’t deserve that kind of support, this is it. This was their best opportunity in the party’s entire existence, a year in which the public pretty much despises the candidates for both major parties. Yet the Libertarians couldn’t get their act together and come up with a winning candidate or a winning strategy. If the Libertarian Party can’t succeed this year, they will never succeed. Their political experiment is over, and they deserve less money and attention in the future, not more.
The only option left for me is to vote for Evan McMullin, who is on the ballot in Virginia. No, he has no chance of winning anywhere outside Utah, but if I’m going to cast a futile protest vote—and I haven’t decided on that yet—then I might as well do it for someone whose personality and policies I mostly like.
4. Go on strike.
Then again, who says you have to vote at all? You can always stay home, not out of apathy, but as a way of going on strike against a dysfunctional political system. Low turnout is a form of protest vote with a long history.
There are those who will insist that it’s your civic duty to vote. But didn’t your fellow citizens have a responsibility in the primaries to pick candidates who aren’t rotten? If you voted in the primaries for somebody better than these two clowns, you have already discharged your responsibilities as a citizen. If everyone else decided back then to run the country into a ditch, you have no obligation to help them decide which side of the road to crash off of.
Ignore the people who tell you the danger of a Hillary Clinton administration means that it is irresponsible to withhold your vote from their favored candidate over mere personal qualms about your “principles”—which are now considered by some people on the right to be irrelevant. This gets the whole idea of the American system backwards. You don’t answer to the candidates or the parties. They answer to you.
You don’t have to explain why you won’t support a candidate. The candidates have to explain why you should support them. It’s up to them to make you want to vote for them, to offer you an important policy goal, evidence of good character, or at the very minimum some kind of compelling personal narrative that makes you trust them just a little bit not to mess everything up.
If they can’t do that—and man alive, what a disaster that has been this year—then you can just stay home. There is nothing more American than deciding that none of the rotten people who are running deserve your vote.
That’s the final answer for what to do when there’s no one to vote for: forget about this year’s election and work hard to help us get better options next time.