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Getting the Highest Marginal Value for Your Vote

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You should vote for Gary Johnson. Maybe.

Let’s be clear: If you’re excited about Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump (or any other eligible candidate), you don’t need this post. Regardless of the relative value of your vote, having a candidate you’re excited about is a gift. You don’t need strategic voting.

For everyone else (and there’s probably a lot of you), I might make a case for you to think a little more strategically about your vote. Here’s the thinking behind it:

Most state’s electors (how we actually determine who will be president) are chosen in a winner take all manner. Washington State for example has 12 electoral votes. Whoever wins the most votes in Washington gets all 12 of those votes. In some states, like Nebraska and Maine, they divvy up electors by congressional district and then have two more to represent the entire state vote. But that’s the exception.

Because of that reality, most states are statistically out of contention. Washington has Clinton up by high double digits. Our next door neighbor Idaho has Trump up by high double digits. The statistical chance of Trump beating Clinton in Washington (or Clinton beating Trump in Idaho) is next to nothing. Most states are not in play. If you live in a swing state like Ohio or Florida, that means you get to see a lot of presidential candidate commercials and visits. Lucky you. That difference will be important in a bit, though.

There are also two third-party candidates who have a good chance of appearing on your ballot: Gary Johnson, the Libertarian Party nominee and Dr. Jill Stein, the Green Party nominee. These candidates and parties have to fight for ballot access, money, and exposure. But even in a winner take all election, getting some different voices to the table is incredibly important. Especially if you are cynical of your mainstream political choices (like me), the need for some alternative voices is even more important.

There are a couple of things that keeping third-party candidates from gaining traction:

  • Third parties have to use their limited resources to fight for ballot access in all states because many have automatic thresholds that are tough to get around if you don’t get enough votes in a particular state
  • Federal election matching funds are only available if you get 5% of the national vote. The last candidate to gain that level of support was Reform party nominee Ross Perot in 1996.
  • The presidential debates require that candidates have at least 15% polling in the days leading up to the debates. Ross Perot in 1992 was the last non-mainstream candidate to achieve this.

For me, as a voter in a very certain Washington state and who is not moved by either mainstream candidate, getting the highest marginal value for my vote means supporting and voting for the third-party candidate who has the best chance of reaching those thresholds, even if I might have individual issues with some of his or her policies. Today, that is Gary Johnson and that’s who has my vote in November.

People are obviously worried about the spoiler effect in a potentially close election. Many still blame Nader for costing Gore the election in 2000. But in a swing state, where there is a good chance that your individual vote will matter a great deal, strategic voting isn’t asking you to ignore that. Unfortunately, you have a tougher decision if you’re not in love with either candidate: Vote for the person you dislike less or go for a third-party, knowing that there is a greater chance your vote could’ve tipped the election.

Johnson is still a long shot to enter the debates. He’s hovering right around 8-10 percent right now. But if those votes come through, the next election might be easier.

A slight warning: Strategic voting isn’t popular (in fact, it doesn’t really make sense in any other race besides ones determined by the Electoral College) and it’s difficult to explain to either candidate true believers or the “Never” the other guy supporters. It’s dispassionate, which is the polar opposite of what this election seems to be about. But in my cynical political eyes, it’s the only reason I’ll put a checkmark beside any presidential candidate.

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