The Choice Is Never Binary
The case for third-party and write-in votes.
Pharisees and partisans were always trying to trap Jesus into binary choices.
The Pharisees asked Jesus, “Should we pay our taxes? Yes or no?” (Matt. 22:15 ff). Jesus’ disciples brought a blind man to him and asked, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2) The thief hanging with Jesus on the cross, at a moment when the stakes could not have been higher, confronted Jesus with such a binary choice: Save yourself, or die.
But in these situations and many others, Jesus resisted the trap. He was the master of finding The Third Way. Not a mushy middle way, but a better, higher way. Jesus knew what beginning philosophy students learn: the false dichotomy is a logical fallacy. A false dichotomy occurs when two choices are presented as being mutually exclusive, or as being the only two options available, in a situation where that isn’t the case.
We are often confronted with false dichotomies during election season. We are told that we have to make a choice between two and only two candidates, the candidates of the two major parties. But that’s plainly not true. Even in a two-party system, there are many choices. A citizen can stay home, or vote for a third (or fourth or fifth) party, or write in a candidate. If someone chooses to write in a candidate, the choices are literally in the millions.
So people who say there are only two choices in an election are either not thinking clearly, or are intentionally lying. But let’s not create a false dichotomy of our own here. Let’s not assume they are (to use Bobby Jindal’s memorable language) “either stupid or evil.” Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt and suggest that what they mean is that only one of the two candidates has a chance of winning, and if you want a chance to be on the winning team, you have to choose one of the two.
If that’s what they mean, they do in fact have a point. Third-party and write-in candidates rarely win in a two-party system such as ours. A third-party candidate has never won at the presidential level.
But even those who disdain third-party and write-in candidacies would likely acknowledge that the purpose of a vote is not merely to pick the winner. We are not betting on a sports team. We vote for the person we want to lead us, or represent us. We choose the person who is most likely to do that, and sometimes our candidate loses.
And here’s a key point: When that happens, when our candidate loses, we did not waste our vote. Most of us would say we took a stand for principles we believed in. Our stand, even for a losing cause, tells the candidates and the parties and the world what kinds of principles and people we are willing to support. Even in our loss, we shaped the future behavior of both the person elected, and the parties who must now plot a path to victory in the next election. A vote for even a losing candidate accomplishes much.
You don’t give up these benefits when you vote for a write-in or third-party candidate. In fact, in some ways you magnify them, especially if the parties are equally matched. Write-ins and third-parties, or the threat of them, have been a powerful force in American politics. The modern Republican Party started out as a third-party effort in the 1850s. Teddy Roosevelt’s “Bull Moose Party” run in 1912 failed to win the presidency, but won many lesser offices and promoted such ideas as the 8-hour work day and women’s suffrage, ideas that eventually became law. Ralph Nader’s 2000 Green Party candidacy may have cost the Democrats the presidency, but it almost certainly pushed the Democratic Party in a more liberal direction.
One might agree or disagree with the changes these third-party efforts wrought, but to say that voting for these third-party efforts was “wasting a vote” is both illogical and ahistorical.
Plus, when the choices of the two major parties are both bad, your vote for a third-party or write-in candidate accomplishes something else: You will be able to cast your vote with enthusiasm and a clear conscience. Your candidate may have lost, but the outcome of the election was not your responsibility. That responsibility belongs to God. He gave you the responsibility to steward only one vote, your own.
Partisans and Pharisees want to trap us into binary choices. But the choices before us — in elections and in life — are rarely binary. That’s why we should always vote our consciences, even if we have to vote for a third-party or a write-in to do so. If our candidate wins, that’s great. We will celebrate. But even if our candidate loses, we will know the satisfaction of doing our part to keep all the candidates and parties just a bit more honest, a bit more humble, the next time around.
And who knows, if we all vote our conscience, the next time around we might not be choosing between the lesser of two evils, but the greater of two goods.
That’s a binary choice I wouldn’t mind making.