Do third party votes "split the vote"?

Anonymous asked this question on 7/26/2000:

Often I circulate petitions to guarantee space on the ballot for a third party, usually the Libertarian Party, since that is my own political party, the one I use when I vote or run for office. Frequently during a day of circulation, registered voters will refuse to sign the petition (effectively giving me permission to vote Libertarian), citing as their justification a concern that my petition, if successful, will "steal votes away from someone else" or "split the vote" in the respective election.

This response generally puzzles me and I wonder what exactly it means. Whenever I am given the time to query these voters, I always ask them how does that work. I usually try to get some understanding of this hypothesis of theirs by setting a hypothetical scene and encouraging them to take it from there and elucidate me. My illustration begins something like this: "O.K. It's November and I, a registered Libertarian, drive to the polling place to cast my vote. I look over the ballot for a few moments before proceeding. I see a few names on the ballot that do not interest me (Nader, Buchanan) and a couple who actually appall me (Gore, Bush) and finally my eyes rest on the name of a candidate who several times promised to promulgate public policy which minimizes the hazard to my health and well-being (Harry Browne) that the other four or five candidates threaten to place upon me. Enthusiastically, I pull the lever beside Browne's name. Have I stolen a vote? And how have I "split a vote?" What exactly have I done?

For some reason the voter is never able to satisfactorily answer my question (almost always the voter will, at this point, simply repeats his claim of "stealing votes" or "splitting the vote") and in fact seems confused where there was previously conviction.

Can someone out there effectively answer my question and elucidate what these voters are talking about: How is my entering the voting booth and pulling the lever for my favorite candidate "stealing" anything or "splitting" anything? P.S.: I
* always* vote Libertarian and never for any other candidates.

madpol gave this response on 7/27/2000:

This is one of the great misconceptions in politics, and one that I don't really have an answer for.

When you poll nonvoters, the overwhelming response is that they don't feel represented by the candidates offered. So, while third parties do draw votes away from the majors, exit polls show that most of their votes are drawn from people who would not otherwise have voted.

I think that a major education campaign has to be done on the idea that only having two parties hurts democracy. A strong showing by a 3rd party candidate usually moderates policies of the winner.

And of course, partisans usually dislike the idea of letting anyone who isn't their candidate run.

morrisonhimself gave this response on 7/27/2000:

Those reactions are based on ignorance, not to put too fine a point on things.
They are operating from a terribly uninformed opinion that somewhere in the Constitution or in the Bible or
* some*where there is a rule that Americans are allowed only two choices at election time.
The problem is contributed to by the lousy government schools and by an ignorant and/or dishonest "news" media.
It is also important to note, and to tell those people who are, in effect, saying that they don't want you to vote, that nearly 75 percent of the eligible adults in America do not vote now, because, according to surveys, they just do not care about a choice between Tweedledumb and Tweedledumber.
That is, they think they do not really have any choices.
It is up to you, and to me, and to MadPol, and to other educated and intelligent voters, to tell all the rest that, "Oh, yes, you most certainly
* do* have more choices."
In fact, in Nevada, there is even "None of the Above" on the ballot, an idea proposed the first time nearly 30 years ago by the Libertarian Party.
(To show how ignorant and/or the "news" media are: In 1996, Ralph Nader was getting credit for the idea, even though the LP began proposing "NOTA" in 1972, the party's beginning.)
You probably will never get through to most of the people who say "steal" or "split," but do keep trying. Let them know that millions of people just do not vote at all simply because they believe there are no real choices.
And likely more people would vote if they knew there were, in most states, about seven presidential candidates.
Thanks for asking an important question.
Michael Morrison

JesseGordon responded:


A viewer asked this question on 5/12/2000:

If a person vote for someone that is not on the ballot, is that wasting a vote? Notice that only the big parties are listed on the ballot, not people from the smaller parties. Then also, if a person only votes for the candidates on the ballot rather than the candidate that best represents there opinion, isn't that undermining/polluting the free voting process?

madpol gave this response on 5/17/2000:

"Defensive voting," the common practice of voting for the candidate you hate least, is the surest way of wasting your vote. Either way, someone who doesn't represent you is going to be elected.

Politics is a marketplace. And, as in any marketplace, lack of demand is going to reduce supply. Voting for minor party candidates at least encourages more to run. The potential for 3rd parties is staggering. In non-presidential years a 40% voter turnout is considered high. Even in presidential elections, Turnouts higher than 50% became uncommon in the 2nd half of the 20th century. One of the most underreported statistics in electoral politics is that when the reform party does well, exit polls show roughly half its' votes coming from people who would not otherwise have voted. Electoral success awaits those who can best tap in to the pool of nonvoters.

Your vote also has policy implications. Some of the worst blunders in US in the last 50 years have occurred as the result of parties interpreting defensive voting as a "mandate."

The Vietnam War, The more extreme features of the Wars on Poverty and Drugs, Reaganomics, the disruption of Government in the 90's, the Impeachment of Bill Clinton, all resulted from one party interpreting votes against the excesses of one party as a green light for their own excesses.

Then too, when a 3rd party shows well, the major parties tend to come up with legislation based on its platform.

Voting for someone who best represents your interests is the best way of making your vote count.

A viewer rated this answer:

I loved the opening line!

JesseGordon responded:


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