When Hillary Clinton lost the election two weeks ago, the first thing Democrat voters did (after looking on in shock and horror) was to look for a scapegoat. Like so many unsuccessful presidential campaigns, they found an easy target in the people who voted outside the two-party system. Accusations that Gary Johnson, Jill Stein, and other third party supporters “voted for Trump”, “don’t care about social rights,” and “should be ashamed” are, in my opinion, completely unfair. Third party voters are not to blame for the final result – the Electoral College is.
The claim that third party votes belonged to Clinton rests on the unfounded argument that all Johnston and Stein voters would have otherwise voted for her, despite the candidates each having substantially different political views. There are very obvious and valid reasons this election cycle provided that explain why so many voters refused to support either major party candidate. In Clinton’s case, the email scandal, accusations of covering up for her husband, the DNC email leak, and so many other attacks on her trustworthiness combined with some pretty poor campaign strategy was enough to turn away potential voters, third party or otherwise. To say that this should not have stood in the way of voting against Trump would be to deny the very real concerns of a good 4.9% of voters, whose choices are just as important as anyone else’s.
There is also very little evidence that voters’ second choice would have been Clinton anyway. There were three other possibilities besides choosing Clinton as a second choice candidate: a) choosing a different third-party candidate, b) not voting at all for someone who wasn’t their first choice, and c) choosing Trump. The first two options would have had no effect at all on Trump’s victory, whereas the third would not only have secured Trump as the winner of the popular vote but could also have bumped up his electoral college votes. Some would have picked option A, some would have picked B, and some would have picked C – it is very dangerous to generalize the possible behaviour of third-party voters because that denies them personal agency.
The real problem lies on the institutional level. Clinton, even with some votes that were potentially hers going to third party candidates, won the majority of the popular vote by 0.9%, even more than that of Al Gore’s win over Bush of 0.5%. But in contrast, Trump won 306 Electoral College votes to Clinton’s 232, compared with Bush’s 271 to Al Gore’s 266. Such an imbalance between the popular vote and the Electoral College vote reflects one of the key flaws that the Electoral College system inherently has: that almost every state chooses to allot all its electoral votes to whoever comes in first place statewide, regardless of the margin of victory.
For decades, polls have shown that large majorities of Americans would prefer a popular vote system instead of the Electoral College. For example, a 2013 Gallup poll showed 63% of adults wanted to do away with it, and only 29% wanted to keep it. But to ditch the Electoral College entirely, the US would have to pass a constitutional amendment (passed by 2/3 of the House and Senate and approved by 38 states) – or convene a constitutional convention (called for by 34 states). Either method is extremely unlikely, because each would require many small states to approve a change that would reduce their influence on the presidential outcome.
To pile the blame on third party supporters is also unfair; they voted for who they believed to represent them, and Clinton’s and the Democratic Party’s faults are their own, not anyone else’s. The Electoral College, however, needs to go; every vote should count equally if election results are to be representative of the will of the electorate.