This election season has been a fractured one. The country was – and is – no longer divided along just party lines, but within the parties by lines of different candidates; mainly Bernie v. Hillary on the Democratic side, and Trump v. Cruz v. Carson v. Bush v....well, you get the idea. And, unlike in many elections of the past, with the conventions over, people aren't all necessarily switching their allegiances to whichever main party nominee they identify most with. They don't want someone who kind of represents them, they want someone who is really going to do what this voter feels is best for the country. So, they decide to vote for a third party, an independent candidate or to not vote at all. And here is where the problems begin.
The harsh reality of the American voting system is that by voting for a third party candidate, or not voting at all, you are actually helping the candidate you like the least win. The United States uses something called First-Past-the-Post voting, which, long story short, means whoever gets the most votes wins. When you vote, you give a little amount of percentage points to a candidate (kind of – the electoral college is weird and a whole different problem but for now lets keep things simplified). If the two main party candidates were the only people you could feasibly vote for, and everyone was forced to vote, you would get some split, which you could put on a nice little pie chart like this:
When you choose to vote for a third party, you are sapping percentage points away from the main candidate who you dislike less. So suddenly, if you hate Candidate One the most, but voted for a third party instead of Candidate Two, your graph looks more like this:
Now, with your vote going to your conscience candidate, you have caused your worst case scenario to occur. Is it theoretically possible that everyone could suddenly decide that a third party is better than the main two and vote for their candidate? Yes, but it is astronomically improbable – the risk factor is too high in most people's minds. Unless the Libertarians or the Green party manage to run a campaign so effective it gets a sizable following (which they haven't – do you know either of their candidates names? Does your neighbor?), most people will be unwilling to risk throwing their vote away.
Some people, instead, decide to opt out and not vote at all, out of disillusionment or frustration. But think of it this way – Candidate 1 and Candidate 2 have a 50-50 split in support in the population, exactly, down to exact voters. If this is the case, it's simply the candidate who has the most people come out to vote for them who wins – each person who stays home shifts the percentage slightly towards the candidate they support the least. This is an extreme and extremely simplified case (and as mentioned above the electoral college makes this all a lot more complicated), but the principle is the same in reality – staying home on voting day also makes it more likely your least favorite candidate will win. Is 50-50 support actually likely? No, but because you can't know the result until the game is played, you have to assume that it is 50-50, and that you are the deciding vote, just in case.
To avoid the worst person (in your mind) from winning, you must vote for the second-worst option of the two main nominees. Some people balk at this, saying that this is a way of thinking that doesn't match with the ideals of America, or that it is simply morally incorrect to vote for someone you don't actually support. And few people can argue with that. It is wrong that this is how we have to look at politics, as a zero sum game where one must make tactical decisions instead of moral, honest ones. But this is the political system we have, and one so ingrained in American politics that it isn't likely to change. Voting your conscience puts ideals ahead of reality and practicality, something hazardous in regards to someone who will be running a world power.
For now, we have what we have. We can wish all day that the primaries went another way, or that we had a better voting system, but we will still have this. And when you're stuck in the system, when that system will directly affect your life and the lives of millions of others, you have to play it as it was meant to be played. Like it or not, right or wrong, if you want your voice to be heard – the most important, and most core value of the American ideal – you have to work with the machine.
Lead Image Credit: Donald Trump & Hillary Clinton by Gage Skidmore via Wikimedia Commons