3rd Party Voter? Campaign!

Wow! What a crazy week this has been. The country certainly seems to be in commotion.

Anyway, I wanted to write a few thoughts about voting third party. I've seen political commentary saying that a vote for a third party candidate is a wasted vote, or even worse a vote for the enemy (whoever that might be). For example, this or this. And the wasted vote interpretation certainly seems to dominate the conversation I'm seeing on Twitter or Facebook.
Friend A: ‟I'm voting for [3rd party candidate].”
Friend B: ‟You idiot! That's a vote for [your preferred candidate for devil in chief].” 
And the crazy thing is that both sides are saying the same thing, even in the same state, just about the opposite candidates. Which makes no sense. Hopefully this post makes some sense even though I'm hitting publish at nearly 2 am.

Here is the basic reasoning behind calling such a vote wasted. (See this pretty good article from thefederalist.com — who knew I'd ever say that?) The argument is that you should vote for the lesser of two evils. Why? Because the system is implemented (rigged?) so that the winner is determined by a plurality of votes, it favors a binary choice. This observation, called Duverger's law, is supported by game theory. (Game theory is a mathematical study of determining strategies.)

Suppose there are three candidates for the Congress of Bending Arts: X, Y and Z. X is a water-bender, while Y and Z are fire-benders. Now, imagine if 45% wanted a water bender and 55% wanted a fire bender. Suppose 40% would vote for Y and 15% would vote for Z. Plurality means that the candidate with the most votes wins, which in this case would be a water-bender X. The presence of two fire-bending candidates is going to split the vote and the majority will actually be disappointed unless they agree on a preferred candidate. In the interest of electing a fire-bender, the 15% should switch their allegiance and vote for Y to keep the water-bender X out of office.

Whenever mathematics is applied, we should ask ourselves what assumptions went into the analysis. In game theory, the utility function is the key idea. The system (here the election) has some set of outcomes. Every individual has a value associated with each of those possible outcomes. A rational individual selects their strategy according to the impact that their strategy has on their utility value, knowing that other individuals are also playing strategies rationally at the same time.

The assumption of our election analysis is that utility is determined precisely by the outcome of the election. That choice is not a requirement. Utility could also be found in the formation of a growing coalition or even in voting true to your conscience. (It could also be in the entertainment value, say writing in Mickey Mouse.) When someone says that the only rational choice is to act a certain way, they are really trying to impose a utility function on you. As stated in another article about mathematics of voting, "The value of your vote is what you give it."

Now what?

Many feel that they face an impossible choice between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, for whatever individual reasons they may hold. I am particularly interested in the conservative NeverTrump movement. Hillary Clinton's liberal agenda is anathema to them, and yet they recognize an ugliness in Donald Trump's candidacy that they can not support.

This ugliness did not suddenly materialize in Trump's leaked Access Hollywood video [no link] in which he used braggadocious, vulgar language that he could sexually assault women with impunity. It has always been there. Even if they despise aspects of Clinton's policy proposals, they recognize the truth of his character captured in the Clinton campaign ads "Role Models" and "Mirrors." Twitter seems to be his favorite medium, other than in rallies, to rant against individuals and groups.

The Salt Lake City newspaper The Deseret News wrote an editorial calling on Trump to resign his candidacy. This is remarkable for the church-affiliated newspaper that has not taken a position on presidential candidates in 80 years. (The editorial was written by the editorial board independently and does not represent a church position.) Perhaps just as remarkably, Trump has received no endorsements (none, nada) by daily newspapers including many papers that have historically endorsed almost exclusively Republicans.

To my conservative friends, I would recommend an unlikely candidate, Evan McMullin, especially if you find yourself shaking your head at Gary Johnson's lack of world awareness. How unlikely is McMullin? Well, to start, he has no name recognition and no history of elected office. Having watched him speak in the video where he unveiled his principles of conservative leadership, I would say that he lacks the charisma we might normally associate with a dynamic politician, giving a sacrament meeting talk in place of a campaign rally. Unfortunately, no well-known politician in the NeverTrump camp was willing to lead the rallying cry. (Mitt Romney probably had already spent his political capital.)

McMullin's path to the presidency (the same as Gary Johnson's) requires activating the contingency of the 12th amendment to the Constitution. This only occurs if both Clinton and Trump fail to receive 270 electoral votes, which is becoming increasingly unlikely as Trump's campaign spirals out of control. The House of Representatives would then select from the three candidates with the most electoral votes. Considering the inability of elected Republican officials to divorce themselves from Trump, I'm not sure that this actually bodes well for the 3rd party unless there were some pretty incredible coalitions built with Democrats. (So you're saying there's a chance?! Yes.)

McMullin served the country as an counterintelligence operative for the CIA for about ten years, worked with businesses through investment banking, and most recently served first as a senior adviser for the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and then as the chief policy director for the House Republican Conference. This is a curious way to gain both national security background and an understanding of the legislative process. McMullin adopts traditional conservative principles while rejecting the divisive components that Trump espouses.

I approve of McMullin's effort to create a rational, compassionate and reasoned conservative movement. Personally, I think it is more urgent to ensure that Donald Trump can not gain the presidency and believe at this time that my Virginia vote is better placed in support of Hillary Clinton. However, at the same time, I would very much like to see McMullin's movement grow, not just to stop Trump, but to re-establish a conservative party that I might actually consider participating in. If Virginia shifts significantly, I might give McMullin my vote as well. (Sorry, I just can't say the same about Johnson.)

Is a vote for McMullin wasted? That depends on what you are trying to do. A vote to keep your conscience clear is probably good. If you really believe in the candidate, then I'd argue it probably isn't really enough. There are so many people who are unhappy with the choices this election, is it possible that enough could choose a third party candidate? In principle, but it would require a phenomenal grass-roots effort never before seen in this country. It is not enough to pledge a vote. Somehow, it must turn into a movement that erupts like the Arab Spring. It needs to break all the assumptions about political inertia in America. How is that going to happen? Otherwise, this will be a flash in the pan that is resorbed back into the mess that is the Republican party without accomplishing the needed change.

Evan McMullin invites his followers to engage others in a conversation to build his movement. Are you talking? Your vote has the value you give it, and it is amplified when you engage others. So I guess that means campaign. Time is running.

Comments

  1. Excellent post Brian. As I talk with more and more people of other religious philosophies it is becoming more and more a choice that others feel the same way. I personally could never vote for Hillary Clinton based on her lack of moral stands for those issues I cannot compromise my beliefs on, so a third party choice for me is a good choice.

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