Given this year’s choices for president, more people are seriously considering casting a vote for a third or minor party candidate. I think it’s important to address the question of the logic of what it means to “waste” one’s vote.
I think the worst thing about this contentious presidential election year is the degree to which Christians have been divided against each other. One major line of attack is aimed at Christians who say their consciences cannot permit them to vote for a crass, constitutionally-ignorant, opportunistic victim-blaming admitted sexual assailant by other Christians who say that any other choice means the first group is complicit in electing a manipulative, megalomaniacal, lying, corrupt, liberty- and family-hating baby killer. The internecine conflict is sharp, with a vitriol usually reserved for Old-Earth versus Young-Earth Creationist debates.
By the way, if you’re on either side of this debate, I encourage you to pause right now and go read this list of New Testament passages on how Christians are supposed to treat “one another.” Then come back. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
Now let’s talk about voting.
There are two major ways of thinking of your vote.
Seeing your vote as expressive reflects the most straightforward and historical purpose of the vote in any democracy or republic; that, when you cast your vote you are expressing a clear preference for one candidate over the others. That is, all things taken into account, you positively favor the candidate’s promises and the candidate him- or herself to hold the office of the president (or whatever office they’re running for).
Seeing your vote as strategic (also sometimes called instrumental) means that your vote is merely a means of accomplishing some other outcome. So when people say they are voting for Trump because they want to prevent Hillary Clinton from nominating pro-choice judges, they are being strategic; they don’t necessarily like Trump, but they are preventing Clinton’s nominations.
Let’s look at the logic of these two approaches.
Sincere Expressive Voting
Expressive voting is the most straightforward and historical purpose of the vote in any democracy or republic—expressing support for a candidate or party that, all things being equal, will lead your community or nation in the way that you actually think is good.
In casting a sincere expressive vote for Trump you are actually endorsing what Trump says, how he says it, and the candidate’s personal character. When another person votes expressively for Clinton, she is positively endorsing Clinton. A vote for Johnson endorses his policies and character, and so on.
This kind of vote is pretty simple to assess for Christians. As I have been teaching for decades: Look at the biblical texts and determine God’s purposes for civil government and society, and the character he expects of the civil authorities, and vote for the candidate who, on balance, best reflects those principles.
(Here is a link to one of my recent talks addressing Christian Citizenship; the section on what scripture says about God’s purposes for government begins around 30:00.)
Now, usually in the US there is at least one major party candidate who is relatively acceptable in these terms, even if not perfect. (You may think one of the major party candidates this year is acceptable in both policy and character terms.) This year, however, it is clear that a lot of Christians support neither Trump nor Clinton and all that they stand for. Still, I have come to the position that your expressive vote for a minor party candidate is not wasted, you just have to understand that you are taking a public stand for what you believe to be the right direction for politics, government and society and you are voting for someone who will not win. That’s okay, because theologically conservative Christians ought to have learned long ago that politicians will compromise on their promises (as two founders of the Moral Majority wrote in their 1999 book Blinded by Might) as even that paragon of conservatism Ronald Reagan did.
I have come to the position that your expressive vote for a minor party candidate is not wasted, you just have to understand that you are taking a public stand for what you believe to be the right direction for politics, government and society and you are voting for someone who will not win.
Weak candidates and their supporters want you to view your vote as strategic, and they try to convince their minions of that in order to gain the leaders’ favored outcomes or avoid disfavored outcomes. Democratic leaders, for example, proclaim to their liberal base that anything but a vote for Hillary is essentially a vote for Trump. President Obama said,
“If you don’t vote, that’s a vote for Trump, if you vote for a third-party candidate who’s got no chance to win, that’s a vote for Trump.”
Conservatives say the same thing. In one of the more sophisticated efforts Eric Metaxas argued,
“Not voting—or voting for a third candidate who cannot win—is a rationalization designed more than anything to assuage our consciences…[Those who choose to do so] would be responsible for passively electing someone who champions the abomination of partial-birth abortion, someone who is celebrated by an organization that sells baby parts.”
I find it fascinating that Metaxas acknowledges that our consciences might need assuaging when faced with the prospect of voting for The Donald. That is, our conscience tells us “You cannot vote for this guy!” or “That other person has the best policies!” and Metaxas patronizingly says that we must comfort our conscience when we actually vote on that basis. He thinks you need to somehow justify voting in concert with your conscience—your Spirit-informed internal compass for discerning right and wrong! (Who is doing the actual rationalizing here?!)
The strategic argument is that removing your vote from the Trump tally (note that folks like Metaxas assume it’s there in the first place!) makes it easier for Clinton to win, because she’ll then need fewer votes to win than she would if you voted strategically. The math of this position is pretty simple.
Let’s say in your state 42 voters say they’ll vote Trump, 40 for Clinton, 5 for Johnson, 3 for Stein, and 2 for Castle. If the election is held today, Trump wins. But suppose some of those are only reluctantly voting for Trump, and only because they loathe or fear Hillary; these are called “clothespin” voters. Let’s say there are three Trump “clothespin” voters who ultimately decide to abstain or vote for Darrell Castle; Trump’s votes go to 39 and Clinton wins with 40, assuming Clinton clothespin voters don’t also abstain or vote for Stein.
Just in case you think this is unrealistic, in a recent (10/18/16) Economist/YouGov poll, 43% of people who said they will vote for Trump say they are actually “mostly voting against Hillary Clinton.” That means nearly half of Trump voters are voting strategically. The same poll shows that about 35% of Clinton voters are “mostly voting against Donald Trump.”
The Metaxas argument, however, is that for Christians anything other than a Trump vote is naïve because your conscience will lead you to vote for someone that actually doesn’t have a chance of winning, like Evan McMullin or Darrell Castle. That is, voters must consider the practical effects of their votes. Thinking strategically, a vote for Castle may indeed have the effect of making it easier for Clinton to win, IF AND ONLY IF you would have otherwise voted for Trump.
An important part of this argument is that the US election system essentially constrains the winner to be either the Democrat or the Republican. I don’t deny that, and I have several fascinating political science lectures on this, if you’re interested! Since Trump is the only candidate with a practical chance of beating Clinton, strategic voting advocates say you ought to vote strategically for Trump if you want to avoid Clinton.
But this mindset only considers a vote a strategic tool, not as a positive expression of political preferences. What if you want your vote to be a positive endorsement of a candidate and his or her positions?
The other effects of voting strategically
Most of the arguments about wasted votes among evangelical Christians emphasize avoiding the effect of Clinton’s Supreme Court nominees. But there are other important effects of voting strategically instead of expressively.
The other effects of strategic voting
- You have to vote against your conscience.
- How the candidate will interpret the vote.
- How society and history will judge Christians for their votes.
- Voting strategically might avert a Clinton win, but it might not.
First, as Metaxas subtly acknowledges, you have to vote against your conscience in order to do what he recommends. At this point, it’s worth revisiting what scripture says about the purpose of your conscience and the importance of living with a clear conscience. (To get you started here’s the BibleGateway link for the word conscience.)
Second, consider how the candidate will interpret the vote. Imagine a candidate who is so egotistical and un-self-critical that he or she will NOT view any votes they get as clothespin strategic votes, but as expressive votes, positive endorsements of his or her policy agenda, campaign tactics, and personal character.
Let me put it directly: Do you honestly think that Donald Trump will look at clothespin votes for him and humbly engage in self-reflection about why so many people didn’t like him but didn’t like Clinton more, and that’s how he ended up with their votes? Or will he say, “I won! Look at how many people love me!”
Third, Christians cannot ignore how society and history will judge Christians for supporting a candidate like Trump. How Christians act, for good or ill, reflects on our King and on other Christians (Matt 5:16; 1 Peter 2:11-16; 1 Peter 3:16-17; Phil 2:15; Titus 2:6-8). Like it or not, we have a responsibility to the Kingdom of God and to the reputation of our King that goes beyond the consequences of the election.
This is already happening. Pundits and political analysts have been happily discussing the enthusiasm that nice conservative Jesus people have for Donald Trump. Here are just a few examples:
- March 6: “Why Evangelicals Support Trump” (Politico)
- June 10: “Evangelicals give Trump stamp of approval” (The Hill)
- June 27: “Not keeping the faith: Donald Trump and the conning of evangelical voters” (Salon)
- July 21: “How Donald Trump Divided and Conquered Evangelicals” (Rolling Stone)
- July 21: “Churchgoing Republicans, once skeptical of Trump, now support him” (Pew Research Center Fact Tank)
- October 7: “Evangelical Leaders Shrug At Donald Trump’s Lewd Comments” (Daily Beast)
The upshot is that as churchgoing evangelicals vote for and stridently support Trump, our whole tribe will get associated with him and his style.
Finally, voting strategically might avert a Clinton win, but it might not. Imagine a scenario in which you violate your conscience, vote strategically for Trump and Hillary Clinton still wins your state (recall that the presidential election is decided state-by-state because of the Electoral College), and even the presidency.
So yes, voting strategically for Trump might keep Hillary out of the White House, if that’s what you want. But it might not. To get there, however, you might have to violate your conscience, send Donald the message that he’s just great, and link Christianity with this person’s electoral success.
And all of that still does not even touch the question of whether Donald Trump (a lifelong Democrat and not a conservative) can be trusted to keep his word to Evangelicals and other conservatives. But that’s another topic.
If you are a strategic Trump voter and have made it this far, thank you. But you’ve probably been arguing with me every step of the way, and feeling like I’ve been hitting you pretty hard, guilting you for your vote choice. That was not my intention. My intention was to starkly communicate what the other side is going through in their genuine conscience-informed struggle, in the face of a pretty ugly assault by other brothers and sisters in the Lord. And to encourage everyone to vote biblically, which may not be the same thing as voting strategically.
If you really like Trump and all his baggage, then by all means vote for him. But stop guilt-tripping your brothers and sisters in Christ. Seriously.
If you cannot in good conscience vote for Trump, find a candidate for whom you can cast a sincere vote expressing support for the direction of their policies and their character, and trust God with the rest in all of his sovereignty.
The only truly wasted vote is one that is not cast at all.
Oh yes, one more thing: We can and must do better when it comes to Christians and how we act if we’re going to be engaged in politics and live out the command to “love one another.” This has not been an edifying year in that respect, has it?
Baboon image courtesy of Pixabay