Voting Third-Party: A Wasted Vote?

Is a third-party vote a wasted vote? People frequently claim — implicitly or explicitly — that it is. I will argue that it isn’t (here and on this podcast). Actually, voting third-party might be a solution to a long-standing problem.

1. The Two Party Problem

To begin, consider the two party system. Ask yourself, “Is this the best system for nominating the greatest quantity of competent and viable candidates?” Obviously not. After all, the two party system gives us only …well, two viable options! Think about it: the only system that can produce fewer viable candidates is a dictatorship. So any other (democratic) election system would be better than a two party system.

Let’s call this unfortunate situation the two party problem. 

Obviously, a solution to the two party problem requires more than two viable parties.

2. Third Parties

The good news is that so-called third parties already exist. The bad news is that none of them have produced viable candidates in US presidential elections. So what’s the hold up? It’s obvious: Not enough people vote for third parties.

So if we want to overcome the two party problem, then it seems that third parties will have to — among other things — receive more votes.

3. Voting To Win

In my experience, many people are interested in third parties. Some people even prefer third-party candidates/platforms over the two major parties. However, few — if any — of these people seem willing to actually vote for the third parties. This seems odd. If these people like and even prefer third parties, then why would they not vote for the third-party?

Here is the reason I hear most often: “I want my vote to count.”

The implication is that people want to vote for a party with a chance of winning — i.e., one of the major two party’s candidates. We can call this the voting to win strategy.

4. The Problem With Voting To Win

First, voting to win perpetuates the two party problem. Think about it.

Every year two very unpopular candidates soak up almost all the votes simply because they are represented by one of the two most popular parties. Why? Because — among other things — people vote to win. They vote for one of the two major parties (even if they don’t like the candidates!) simply because those candidates belong to one of the two parties with the best chances of winning. As a result, the two popular parties remain popular even if their candidates aren’t popular. In other words, the people who vote to win perpetuate the two party problem (For a better analysis, see Duverger 1972 and/or Wikipedia’s”Duverger’s Law” ).

Second, when it comes down to it, we don’t actually think that voting to win is better than competing strategies. Imagine for a moment that Hitler is one of the candidates in the election. And imagine that the best analysis of all the polling indicates that Hitler is very likely to win — probably by a landslide. In other words, no other candidates are likely to win. Does that mean that we shouldn’t vote for the other candidates? Of course not! Why? For starters, we don’t align with Hitler’s values and policies. In other words, when it comes down to it, voting to win isn’t nearly as important to us as voting to align — more on that in a second.

The point of this section is that voting to win is bad for two reasons: it perpetuates the two party problem and it doesn’t reflect our considered values and policies.

5. Voting To Align

Imagine a different strategy: vote for the candidate/party that most aligns with you.

[Protip: helps you quickly rank candidates according to how well they aligned with your views.]

If this were an operative strategy, then every person who preferred a third-party would actual vote for a third-party. According to my experience, this would increase the third-party vote because — as I mentioned earlier — more people align with third-party options than actually vote for third-party options.

And as the percentage of people voting for third parties increases, three important changes might occur.

5.1  Voter Perception

As third-party voting becomes more common, the perception of third-party voting could change. Third party voting could become more normal, and therefore more acceptable. This would mean that people have less reason not to vote third-party. Further, it might even influence people with third-party preferences to be more comfortable identifying with third parties or as independents (Jørgen, Elias, and Pedro 2012). Notice that this could be a sort of self-reinforcing effect: as third party voting becomes more normal, more people vote third-party, which makes voting third party voting even more normal, …etc.

Notice also that normalizing third party voting could also lead to further changes.

5.2  Party Incentives

As more people vote for the third party options that they prefer, the two most popular parties could become weaker. And as the two major parties become weaker, they are less able to win elections with such unpopular candidates. As a result, the two major parties will have newfound incentive to offer candidates that are not so unpopular.

5.3  Campaign Donor Incentives

As third party options become more viable, the risks of investing in a single candidate might increase. With two candidates, a donation has — all other things being equal — a 50% chance of getting a candidate into office. With three viable candidates, a donation has only a 33% chance. With four, they have a 25% chance. Etc. The upshot is that viable third party options could impact campaign donation incentives.

With more viable candidates campaign donors might (a) invest in multiple candidates or (b) invest less overall or (c) both. It seems that all of these options could lead to more democratic campaign finance schemes since corporations and wealthy groups would donate less overall and/or donate to more candidates.


The two party problem is suboptimal. A viable third party option seems like a natural improvement. Producing a viable third party option seems to require that people — among other things — abandon the vote to win strategy. A better strategy is voting to align. It seems that this strategy could, in the long run, improve parties’ incentives and voters’ perceptions. And when incentives and perceptions reach some critical mass, voters might succeed in creating a viable third party option!

And remember the Hitler case: when it comes down to it, the voting to align strategy outshines the voting to win strategy. That is, when there is only one candidate who is likely to win, but that candidate trespasses our values, then it is obvious that we should vote for someone else.


Image via adapted from a Quick Meme by Nick Byrd

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Nick Byrd

Nick is a cognitive scientist at Florida State University studying reasoning, wellbeing, and willpower. Check out his blog at

8 thoughts on “Voting Third-Party: A Wasted Vote?”

  1. I am no expert on politics, but I would say that the idea of a wasted vote is not bad. First, while your ideal of a gradual shift to 3rd party candidates over time is certainly desirable, I think it assumes that most non-partisan voters are involved with and educated on political issues. I would argue that the people most involved are Democrats and Republicans who are devoted to their party, and not the candidates nominated therein. I don’t see there being enough engaged voters to act as a base for the movement you want. Therefore voting for a 3rd party will probably have no effect for years–if any affect. Lastly, and this is more of an observation, I believe that most of the major shifts in the political scene in America’s history have happened when the two dominant parties were not providing a sufficient response to an issue of the time and a 3rd party was born which supplanted one which was formerly in the dominant pair (e.g. Whiggs supplanted by Republicans). I am not opposed to your idea. I just don’t think the political muscle will materialize to elevate 3rd party candidates, and a 2-party system might just be part of the general makeup of democratic societies.

    1. Your distrust of voters is understandable. This is the second most common response I get from people about voting third party. Alas, no matter our voting strategy, our vote can always be overruled by masses of others who might be entirely unprepared to vote. The problem exists so long as every citizen gets one vote. The only way to combat this would be to issue a “to each according to his level of education” rule about voting such that the most educated people get the most votes. Alas, many people find this system prima facie unjust.

  2. The importance of every vote can’t be overstated. One recent presidential election involved significant 3rd party votes. Bush v Gore 2000 (3rd party Nader). Ralph Nader almost certainly sent the 2000 election to George W. Bush (see Florida). If Gore had won in 2000, it is highly unlikely the United States would have attacked Iraq and lost 3500 U.S. soldiers and some estimates of 1,000,000 Iraqis. Won’t even discuss the dollars spent or the violence coming from the middle east due to the change in power structure. Steep price for bending the arc of better elections. In addition, significant 3rd party votes would put one party in control of most state legislatures until voters got their act straight. As has been seen in several state legislatures with one party majority, voting laws are enacted to keep the opponents people from voting, probably delaying a true 3rd party option to infinity. As long as North Dakota and California have the same representation in the U.S. Senate, you will see legislation that doesn’t comport to what most people would argue is common sense.

    I believe what you are really asking for is a Parlimentory form of government where a coalition is formed between parties. That would require a constitutional convention, and while I believe that would improve our government, I’m not holding my breath.

    I strongly believe a vote for a 3rd party candidate is a vote for the person’s least favorite Democrat or Republican, and that has had catastrophic consequences.

    1. I won’t hold my breath for a constitutional convention either …but I’ll keep hope for it. :)

      Thanks for your thoughts, Rick. Astute, as always.

  3. Gore lost on his own, for so many reasons. The Pat Buchanan vote alone in FLA was enough to make the difference, or the votes for a variety of other lesser known candidates, so Nader was no spoiler. The fact that we feel compelled to vote for D or R regardless of who else may be available considerably curtails democracy — so that apart from the usual abysmal voter turn-outs the system isn’t much more representative than one party dictatorships with their compulsory elections.

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