No One Hears Your Protest Vote

Filed in National by on October 31, 2016

Clay Shirky published an amazing Twitter rant a couple of weeks back, that I’ve been thinking about and talking about with a few others since then. Take a look and tell me what you think:

So the argument is that voting is not about validating your identity, but about choosing your government. If you are not choosing between the parties that are 99% certain to govern, then you are allowing others to make your choice for you. To be able to make your vote a non-throwaway one, you’ll need to change the Consitution. I’d add that you could also take the old Republican Party tack — get some grassroots support, including getting people elected to Congress and other offices and be ready to jump into the breach when one of the two current parties fails. This is tougher in an environment where voters are wrangled into pools that are more likely to vote D or R. But unless you are getting a coalition-building number of votes (the kind of votes that can help swing an election), no one hears your protest. When pols (sitting or potential) are looking to run, the first thing they do is look at where the votes came from previously and where they think they can build their own coalition. Votes for third parties are generally not looked at as a factor because those votes function as a vote to go along with whatever everyone else voted for.

Realizing that not everyone is going to get involved in the process, the biggest thing I wish third parties would do is to stop just showing up for Presidentials. There’s downballot potential everywhere (especially in an environment where plenty of people are unhappy about their government at all levels) that needs the right people doing some strategic thinking and long-term execution. My favorite example is right here in Wilmington. The City Council was facing a very large turnover this year and this would have been an interesting place for the right candidate (s) to make an appeal. Impossible? Maybe. But grassroots organizing and some long-term vision is key. So in Wilmington, that means that a third party candidate starts on Jan 1, 2017 — going to community meetings, being a part of solutions and working at figuring out what it would take to mount an effective run in 2020. But if you are a Libertarian candidate and the first time anyone sees your name is 3 months before the General, that is a problem. Third party candidates are going to have a tougher row to hoe, but that work should have some longer term payoff if done persistently. In a perfect world, effective third party organizing and candidates should be a pull for the typical D and R candidates away from their comfortable positions. But until a third party candidate is strong enough to capture enough votes to potentially undermine D and R candidates, voting for them continues to be a protest that only that voter can hear.

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"You don't make progress by standing on the sidelines, whimpering and complaining. You make progress by implementing ideas." -Shirley Chisholm

Comments (9)

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  1. Bane says:

    Good article.

  2. pandora says:

    Those tweets sum it up perfectly.

  3. puck says:

    “Even multiple parties can’t represent most voters’ preferences most of the time”

    Thus the emergence of single-issue voters, who only have one itch to scratch.

  4. Steve Newton says:

    The tweets mix good points with unfortunate errors of fact.

    There’s absolutely no evidence that

    A strong Presidency and winner-take-all voting has cemented two-party politics since before the first competitive election, in 1796. This would, for example, fail to account for the elections of 1824 and 1860, where the field was composed of four candidates in each, and would have to completely ignore Federalist #10 and #52 as indicating anything about the perceived relationship of political parties to the new Constitution by the Framers.

    This is a Constitutional issue, not an electoral one. A third party could only succeed if the Constitution were re-written. This is also inane. How exactly does the writer think the disintegration of the Whigs led to the creation of the GOP, anyway? Or what about the election in which all four candidates receiving electoral votes were from the same party? Is he even aware that it was not until 1836 that at least some electoral votes were cast by electors selected by State legislatures, and not by popular vote?

    That said, I don’t disagree with a lot of the point–that we are choosing a government when we vote–the problem is that both the Democrats and the Republicans don’t present it that way–they present it as a choice of ideologies far more than a choice of policies.

    I also completely agree with cassandra’s comment about showing up–but it is not enough (which further makes her point). I was (and to some extent continue to be) politically active and community oriented in my district for several years before running. But that third-party label inherently made me a “nice guy” who “we wish would have run as a Republican or a Democrat so we could have voted for him.” Right now–despite all third-party pretensions to the contrary–you can’t build a new party, you can only take over an existing one.

    And that is a lesson that the Tea Party and the Alt Right have learned with chilling effectiveness. If you like historical analogies, Donald Trump is John Charles Fremont in 1856 (and Fremont was damn near that crazy), with the question being whether the coalition of Tea Party, Alt Right, and pragmatic Evangelicals/Social Conservatives will put together a coalition for 2020. I know it looks unlikely at this point, and there will be the inevitable jokes about the impossibility of such a coalition producing an Abraham Lincoln, but it’s really important to note that the leading GOP presidential contenders prior to the Convention of 1860 were William Seward, Simon Cameron, Edwin Stanton, and Salmon P, Chase–not an obscure former Representative and failed US Senate candidate from Illinois.

  5. cassandra_m says:

    This would, for example, fail to account for the elections of 1824 and 1860, where the field was composed of four candidates in each,

    1824 had four candidates and all were of one party, since the Federalist party had collapsed. No other party was ready to take the place of the Federalists. 1860 was the election before the Civil War and that election was as unsettled as the country was. Still, if you look at the Electoral College votes, it was Lincoln (Republican) and Breckenridge (Southern Dem) who took the majority. Neither of the other candidates would have swung the election if they had dropped out, so we are still looking at a strong two party showing here, with others not making much difference.

    There are reasons why candidates from the same party don’t face each other in General Elections any more and why third parties still don’t make much of a dent even when they can get EC votes. The shape of a two party system is pretty persistent throughout American history.

    I alluded to this as a way to gain “second party” status, but the collapse of the Whigs made a space for the Republicans to occupy. They didn’t just exist as opposition to the Democrats, but had a pretty well-articulated ideology that helped them to take up the space that the Whigs were pushed out of. But The Republicans did not appear overnight, and did not just focus their major energies on a Presidential campaign every 4 years. They had won elections to Congress, they held Governorships, they had people in statehouses so they had a powerbase to build from. Still, I don’t think that Shirkey precludes the existence of a major party outside of the Ds and Rs, just that a 3rd party who gets to that point will become a major (second party). Because our government isn’t set up for multi-party participation at any significant level, the way that parliamentary systems are.

    One thing I should have added to my “prescription” is advocating for IRV for municipal, even state elections. Ds and Rs will fight like hell, but IRV goes some way to removing the binary choices for elections and should force pols to cultivate a larger coalition. It lets people vote the “the nice guy”.

  6. Steve Newton says:


    I agree with many of your views, but in this case your historical analysis is problematic. In 1824 it was possible for there to be four candidates from a single party, not because No other party was ready to take the place of the Federalists, but because modern political parties as we think of them did not yet exist. As for 1860 was the election before the Civil War, that’s a “cart before horse” answer–the 1860 election can explain a lot about the Civil War, but the Civil War cannot explain the 1860 election without moving back in time.

    That election is notable for the fact that one candidate you ignore–Douglass–had the second highest popular vote total because he was the only other truly national candidate besides Lincoln. But what the 1860 election supports is the thesis that, under stress, the two-party system can come undone, and when it does all bets are off.

    Lincoln’s election proved the sectional population imbalance that had developed in the country–between 1820-1856 the winning candidate always needed votes from both slave and free states to win; beginning in 1860 it was possible to put together a winning electoral total without a single electoral vote from a slave state. This changed the calculus and rendered old party allegiances problematic–as evidenced by the fact that Lincoln did not run for President in 1864 as a Republican, but on a Unionist ticket–under fire from his own party’s radicals and from the conservative Democrats.

    Point being: there’s nothing either Constitutional or sacred about a two-party system. It exists in part because of homeostasis, and in part because the two parties have spent decades now intentionally creating structural and legal barriers against potential competition. If they were corporations they’d be perfect targets for anti-trust legislation. Microsoft could learn a thing or two about unethical monopolistic practices from them.

    As for the Republicans, they did appear–in political terms–overnight, and their appeal was strictly that of a regional party until 1860. They were initially a loose coalition of Conscience Whigs, Know-Nothings, and Free-Staters who happened (see Eric Foner) on the happy medium of supporting “anti-slavery” rather than “abolitionism.” Absent the divisive split in the Democratic Party at Charleston in 1860, there was at least an even chance that Abraham Lincoln would have been a footnote on the order of John Bell, rather than an icon.

  7. Dorian Gray says:

    This is very interesting history. However it’s not really relevant to the matter at hand. Next Tuesday 8 November 2016 there are two viable candidates. If you don’t choose one you’re voting for an also ran who’ll be forgotten in 100 years by all except for historians on local political blogs. Or you could decide to sit out like petulant 10 year-old who takes his ball and goes home.

    You can make up some fantasy slogan like, “I’m voting my conscience.” Problem is that assumes that there’s some moral examination in the voting booth. There is not. You’re picking the executive manager of the federal government. One candidate is experienced and legitimate and one candidate is a fucking cartoon joke. We’re making this much harder than required.

  8. mouse says:

    But the cartoon guy is really entertaining

  9. cassandra_m says:

    If you look at the List of Presidential Candidates from inception, you see one big thing — the shape of competition for the American Presidency is formed around two major parties since 1796. No doubt that “major parties” has evolved in definition and operation since then, but outside a small handful of periods where an opposition party couldn’t manage a candidate or where parties were in flux prior to a major political catyclism, you see two major parties in competition. The anomolies don’t define the pretty clear arc. Two parties may just be a dumb tradition, but it is more likely that FPTP winning makes two parties basic economy of scale. So in Britain (and some other commonwelath countries), they are largely dominated by two parties as well — but smaller parties have a greater chance to be in government and even to be part of governing coalitions if their numbers are great enough. But you are also talking about systems where you vote for parties or party lists rather than an individual which is why Shirkey says you’d have to change the Constitution to make third parties more viable as real minor parties.

    The melt down of the parties was reflective of the metldown of the country then. Douglass may has been the truely national candidate, but he also emerged with the least number of electoral college votes. Making him the real third party candidate in the race. Still — that doesn’t change the fact that while Lincoln may have had a narrow popular vote win, he won pretty decisively in the Electoral College which is the only thing that counts. It doesn’t matter much when the Republicans appeared as a party the pertinent point is that they were clearly able to get themselves elected to various levels of government — meaning that they had done the coalition building work to get there. It is much easier to occupy the space of a party in meltdown if you are already a proven electoral entity — circling back to my original point — no Third Party in the US is is currently in a position to do so.