One thing I heard in the Plunderbund debate chat last night were a few people who have already voted for (or decided to vote for) Jill Stein instead of Barack Obama. This is a terrible decision. Allow me to explain why.

First, I should preface my comments by saying that I’m sympathetic to people who prefer Stein to Obama. In fact, when I go to ISideWith.com and take the quiz, the most recent time I have done so it suggested my preferred positions were more in line with Jill Stein’s positions. I still strongly aligned with Barack Obama, but Stein held a slight edge. And I do have specific complaints about Obama’s policies and triangulating, most often that he’s not as far “left” as I would prefer, and believe is necessary for progress.

It would seem perfectly reasonable and rational to vote for the candidate closer to my views. The refrain I have often heard is that “Obama hasn’t earned my vote”. And for a centrist voter, who lies somewhere between the two candidates, this is a perfectly reasonable position. But for someone who finds both of the major candidates to the “right” or “left” of their preferred ideal, it is electoral suicide. At least in a swing state.

There is a theory called the “median voter theorem” that states that the candidate closer to the positions of the median voter wins the election. In general, this is true; and there is a lot of evidence that supports this theory as being explanatory. It also becomes somewhat instructive as an example of how third parties, in our electoral system, act to “spoil” the election and ensure that the winner is the candidate further from the median position (and thus further from the desired position of the people who voted for the “third” party). There is a simplification here that doesn’t always hold – that party positions can be neatly placed on a one-dimensional scale – but an artifact of the way we count votes means we can safely ignore this complication.

Basically, it works like this. We use, generally, what is called “first past the post” voting. What this effectively means is that when a candidate has an insurmountable number of votes, they win the election. In a two-party election, this means having more than half the votes. When a third candidate arrives, it means simply having the most votes, even if it is just 34%. For example, let’s assume that Barack Obama would win a two-party election against Mitt Romney 51-49%. Obama is just slightly closer to the “median voter” position that Romney in this example. Each candidate takes all votes further towards the extremes than their position, and split the voters in between their positions down the middle. Since Obama is narrowly closer to the middle, the size of his voting block is ever so slightly larger. Now let us assume Jill Stein runs, and gets just 3% of the vote. This two percent will be the remote tail further left of Stein; the split of the swing votes doesn’t change. But the election winner does – Romney wins, 49% to 48% to 3%. So, despite being further from the median voter, Romney wins the election. Stein voters get the candidate least favorable. And, perversely, this is unlikely to have the desired effect of moving the Democratic party further left; they can gain more votes by moving closer to the middle, and taking votes away from the GOP candidates.

This video does a nice job explaining how first-past-the-post guarantees that a two-party political system is the only stable outcome of this election method.

We’ve seen this before, with both Ross Perot and  Ralph Nader. But what further complicates the issue is the fact that elections in the US are not determined by a simple vote majority. As we all know, it is determined by the electoral college total, and the electoral college votes are determined on a state-by-state basis. What is the practical effect of this?

Voting for Jill Stein in Nebraska allows that voter to express their displeasure with Democratic Party policies or candidates, but without risking a Romney presidency. Similarly, voting for Gary Johnson in California will not negatively impact Romney’s election chances, if you are partial to the Libertarian Party.

But in Ohio? Well, Ohio’s winner will almost certainly win the Presidency, and the margin appears to be fairly thin. If you are a liberal/progressive/Green in Ohio, unless you want a Romney presidency, you should be voting for Obama. As disappointing as that may be for you, it is the reality of the confluence of first-past-the-post and the Electoral College. Voting for a third party will not suddenly give us a situation where we have three viable choices. If you want more choice in elections, then you need to advocate for a system such as approval voting, IRV, or Schulze method (all of which have their advantages and disadvantages; there is no perfectly flawless answer).

If you are underwhelmed or disappointed with Obama, but prefer a more liberal set of policies, the solution isn’t to vote for Stein. Voting is, quite literally, the least you can do. You need to get out there and be active. Write letters, make phone calls, donate time and treasure to advocacy groups for the issues you care about. Show Democrats what you want, and what you care about. Voting in a way that ensures the guy who doesn’t care about you is in office is no way to promote your policy goals. It is shooting yourself and your issues in the foot.

  • Luke Brockmeier

    It’s magical thinking to say that “if Obama loses, the Dems will nominate a more progressive candidate in 2012.”
    No, “if Obama loses, Medicaid goes away and everybody has to pay for their birth control”. Real progressive outcome there.
    If you want more liberal Democrats, run a liberal Democrat for your downticket races. Then campaign for that liberal Democrat.
    Why somebody would think it’s “progressive” for this change to start at the presidential level is… well, depressing is what it is. Progressives should support policy outcomes, not individuals.

  • westparkguy

    I agree. Start locally first and get some green party members elected as mayors, the Ohio State House/Senate, Congress, etc…

    Do that first, then worry about President.

  • John W.

    Thanks for making this post, Joseph. The Democrats and Republicans themselves have created this mess with
    their two-party system that forces the same candidates and same choices
    on us year after year.

    Preface: I probably will vote for Obama because of the “tactics” you’re talking about.

    I want to vote for Jill Stein because she agrees with me on most of the issues. As a “conservative” liberal, Obama does not agree with me on most issues. So, why should I concede my vote to him?

    Foreign policy? The have the same views. Gun control? Same. Campaign finance? Raising the minimum wage? Death penalty? Expanding offshore drilling? All the same.

    Education? Obama is slightly better than Mitt Romney. Gay marriage? Obama might be slightly better than Mitt Romney, but I can’t tell.

    So, do I vote for someone who supports most of what I support (Jill Stein), or who doesn’t support what I support, but is slightly less bad than Mitt Romney?

  • I know Joseph does write most of the posts here on PB, but this one was actually written by Brian.

  • Good afternoon Brian,

    Already voted for Jill Stein,

    I tried your way in ’96 (Nader) and ’00 (Gore) and got four worthless years of Clinton and four years of Bush. After casting nine votes for presidents — eight Democrats and on Green, I’m tired of the results delivered by the common wisdom.

    In 2008 I voted for Obama because I was upset with the erosion of civil liberties and expansion of executive power, but I publicly stated that that election would be the last where I voted for a Democrat unless Obama proved he was different. Four years later and civil liberties are no better and we’ve moved from torture to executive assassination.

    If the race is close in Ohio, and Obama loses the state and the nation, the fault will be solely on the shoulders of the Democratic Party for failing to be a difference that makes a difference and no tearing of hair or putting on sackcloth and ashes will convince me otherwise.

    Do all you can to make today a good day,

    Jeff

  • westparkguy

    Sure, vote for whoever you wish but remember your vote has consequences. Your idealistic view is nice but that’s not the way things works. If you want political power then you go out and build it from the ground up.

  • westparkguy

    And Jeff will be the first one complaining about how bad Romney is and how we should elect a real progressive.

  • Yes on both points, but neither alters my basic premise that, to steal a line from another former Democrat, I haven’t left the Democratic Party, the Democratic Party has left me.

    Because I chose to take a principled stand does not mitigate in the least the Democratic Party’s failure to not be the left wing of the Republican Party.

  • Dan, my point is that voting Green in the Presidential election does NOT move the party closer to you. It actually moves them further away. Every vote they pick up in the middle is a vote they take *away* from the only other candidate who can win.

    (“You” in the sense of “Green voter”. I saw your post that you are voting for Obama.)

    This is NOT soft “voter intimidation. It is an attempt to educate people on the realities of the electoral system. Frankly, I would encourage people in “red” states to vote for Stein. But not in Ohio, because it allows the GOP to move even further right and still win elections.

  • A third party candidate WILL never win. Has it never occurred to you that 3 years after the constitution was written, we already had a 2 party system, and we’ve never had more than two prominent parties for any significant duration of time in the entire history of the country?

    If you want viable alternative choices, change the electoral system.

  • After Gore lost to Bush the Dems didn’t move left they moved right. Back in the 90’s Clinton co-opted the then GOP agenda and that’s why Obama hired so many former Clinton staffers

  • Dan

    Most people came back into the fold for the 04 election. That was a mistake unless those voters changed their mind on their view. So why shouldn’t the Dems move right. They can move right and pick up the voters who defected all at the same time. Win-Win. If voters continued to vote third party that may have not been the case.

  • Dan, the median voter theorem says that whichever candidate is closest to the median voter will win. So there is *always* incentive for the Dems to move right, and conversely for the GOP to move left. A large left-wing spoiler has the opposite effect to that which you suppose.

    To revisit the 49-48-3 scenario, the Dems, sitting at 48%, can either move left in an attempt to capture that 3% (thus moving away from the middle, potentially costing them those votes), or then can move right, to capture swing voters. If they capture just 1% more of the swing vote, they win. IOW, the path to electoral victory for a party with a spoiler party on the same side is to move *away* from that spoiler party, not towards it, in our two-party system.

    Voting for a party that has no chance of winning is functionally equivalent to not voting. If you’re out on the “tail” of the distribution, and not voting, the effect is for the median voter to move away from you, which moves both parties away from you.

    You want change? Elect the better candidate, and then work on shifting the median voters to your side.

  • I think the problem with this logic in relation to Libertarians is that they don’t fit neatly into the left-right paradigm. For example, Obama and Romney are equally far from myself and many other libertarians, so we don’t have a least preferred candidate.

  • Luke Brockmeier

    “If McCain was elected in 08 and the whole joint blew up, the effect would likely have been the whole country moving left New Deal style.”
    I wish that I, like Dan, had been comatose 2004.
    “politically speaking it would have worked.”
    Again, the goal isn’t to be elected. The goal is to advance progressive policies–which Obama has done in droves.

  • westparkguy

    Well why don’t you get involved and make a difference instead of complaining about it. Have you run as a Green Party candidate for you school board, city council, Ohio House, etc…

    You know what, whatever. You are as just as bad if not worse then a guy a met on the street that said he didn’t want to register to vote because he didn’t want to get picked for jury duty.

  • westparkguy

    So the name of your post should be “Why Liberals and Progressives Lose Elections”

  • westparkguy

    Letting the other side ruin the country for awhile is perfectly viable option?

    Well that might be great for you, but for the rest of us, not so much. You want your friends right to have a safe and legal abortion taken away? You want to find them in a coma from a botched illegal abortion?

    Those are options that are not viable for me, my wife, my friends, or my children.

  • Dan

    You obviously feel the Democrats represent you. But what if you didn’t?

  • Dan

    I voted for Kerry in 04. But I felt the Democrats no longer represented me, I’d vote third party as well. If I was on the extreme right or left, I’d not vote for either major party at the national level.

  • westparkguy

    Do I think the Democratic Party represents me perfectly? Of course not, no party can or will represent every individual perfectly. You take the good with the bad or get involved and change the reason why you feel the party doesn’t represent you.

    The fact is we have a two party system and that’s not going to change in the next 3 weeks.

  • SlapFat

    “And on November 6th of 2012 Jill Stein rode to victory on a magical organic beanstalk as wind-powered chariots full of supporters cheered her on. They’d won at last! And without any electoral votes, too!”

    Like the above scenario? It will never happen, but apparently alot of Green party voters think it will.

    This is a good column because it states the obvious: Jill Stein or Miscellaneous Candidate X is not going to win the election. They will not come anywhere even close, and if you think you’re making “a statement” by voting for your maverick of choice then you’re either very simple or dangerously naive. If you’ve already voted for them then you must stare at a picture of Ralph Nader for the next 10 years. And not talk.

    I could hurl pennies at the basement wall of an abandoned factory and have more of an effect on the election than the people voting for Jill Stein. It is so simple but needs repeating for the weak-minded and overly idealistic: either Romney or Obama is going to win in November.

    Don’t be lazy. Don’t be sullen. And don’t ignore reality.

    This article was as needed as it was well-written.

  • “You know what, whatever?” Really? That’s the best you can do?

    If you can’t come up with a reasoned argument in favor of your candidate, better than “the world will end if my candidate doesn’t win” then how can you ever expect to convince anyone of the validity of your point of view?

  • Reasoned arguments — other than those driven by fear — in support of your position please…

  • If Obama doesn’t win we have to watch and hear Romneybot on tv for the next four years, that alone is enough for me.
    I feel as a woman that Obama has done a few things for civil liberties (covered contraception, covered annual dr visits, supporting equal pay act, etc.) – which you said you wanted to see.

  • Romney is so obviously sexist, classist and racist I can tell you it is not an option for most people AT ALL. Maybe for you (are you a white male? that might be why). But for those who need support, and those that are underprivileged letting someone get elected who wants to cut government programs is not an option.

  • Then vote for Johnson. Or don’t vote. Same difference, in the end.

    Or you guys could make common cause with a LOT of people and push for grassroots election reform. I, for one, am not a “loyal Democrat”. I mean, I vote virtually completely D, all the way down the ticket, largely for the reasons in this post. But I feel no particular loyalty to the party. I do not begrudge those who do. I would be willing to vote for candidates from other parties *if doing so was meaningful*.

    Or at the very least not actively harmful.

  • Dan

    I actually agree with you on this issue. If the Dixiecrat, Bull-Moose, Reform, Green, etc parties couldn’t move parties after spoiling elections, it likely isn’t going to happen. But the whole idea of telling someone to tactically vote feels so wrong to me on a variety of levels. So I can’t help myself but to fight for the idea of third parties making a difference.

  • Dan

    I’m insulted that you don’t think Romney won’t be just as bad for white males… heh

  • Good morning Amelia,

    I’ll give you one out of the three — supporting equal pay — but President Obama’s healthcare gains, while important, are not a matter of civil liberties.

    In the civil liberties column I would include his actions regarding gay rights, but again, while important, perhaps even historic, they must be weighed against his actions to broaden civil liberty attacks under the flag of The War on Terror at home and the replacement of imprisonment and torture with executive assassination abroad.

    President Obama is not a bad president, and he certainly is a better president than Romney will ever be, but I believe that “not bad” is not the same as “good.”

    Do all you can to make today a good day,

    Jeff

  • westparkguy

    You already voted. Why should I argue with you and waste my time when there are other people to convince.

  • westparkguy

    Why waste my time supplying you with “Reasoned Arguments”? You already voted.

  • Why are you wasting your time period? The very first statement I made was “Already voted for Jill Stein” yet you feel compared to attack my position without making any attempt to defend your own. That does seem odd to me.

  • Why are you wasting your time period? The very first statement I made
    was “Already voted for Jill Stein” yet you feel compared to attack my
    position without making any attempt to defend your own. That does seem
    odd to me.

  • westparkguy

    I think it has been explained enough for you.

    Please go off to your hippy-dippy fantasy world that you live in and let the grown ups work.

  • lets keep it civil, please.

  • So, in the absence of any reasoned arguments in support of your position you resort to name calling?

  • Red Rover

    So why don’t we hear arguments from the Democratic Party to broaden the landscape a little bit and end the two party duopoly? They’re too busy converging with the Republican Party, and it’s in their interests to keep minor party candidates from getting elected. I’m not going to keep voting for wolves in hopes that they’ll lighten up and play fair. I will advocate for REAL democracy in this country during and between elections, but in the meantime I’m not going to compromise myself by voting for “the lesser of two evils”. Evil is still evil, so I’m not playing that game. If people would simply vote their minds instead of their fears, sure we might still wind up with two parties under the current system, but we’d see more shake-ups of which two parties are in power. More people identify as something other than Democrat or Republican now, so they’re clearly not serving our interests. Fear-based voting binding the country to these two regressive parties is holding us back.

  • Two years ago, some
    progressives stayed away from the polls, enabling John Kasich and
    the extreme GOP to seize control of our state government. People who don’t
    vote, as well as those who cast protest votes for people with no chance of winning, help elect fanatics like Kasich- a Fox News commentator who thinks he’s “fulfilling a grand design, a mission for
    which he was chosen by God to save Ohio.”

  • “Electoral suicide” is what a candidate commits, not a voter. Voting for Obama is “voting against your own interest.” Unless you are a Wall Street bankster, in the national security business, private prisons, the pharmaceutical industry, oil, insurance, corporate infotainment, or a major stockholder in a multi-national corporation.

    If we used your meaning, “electoral suicide” would be more like a Pakistani child voting for Obama.

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