The Spoiler Fallacy

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Once every two years or so, someone inevitably complains about my support for “third party” candidates (Shawnee Green Party, Illinois Green Party, and Green Party of the United States). Most if not all of these complaints focus on the so-called “spoiler effect“. Rather than rehashing the same arguments multiple times with multiple people, I’ve decided to write this post.

The so-called “spoiler effect” is the idea that third-party and independent candidates “spoil” elections by splitting like-minded voters between two or more similar candidates. Other people have written at length¬†about this topic, but here’s my two cents.

I refer to this idea as the “spoiler fallacy”. Why? Because it’s a fallacy, an example of faulty reasoning. The premises are false and the conclusion does not follow from the premises.

First, let me debunk two painfully common myths:

  1. Nader did not cost Gore the 2000 election. You’re entitled to your own opinions, but not your own facts. Ralph Nader did not cost Al Gore the 2000 election. Gore won the popular vote and would have won Florida in the event of a recount, in spite of election tampering. Also, even if you set aside the Supreme Court decision and election tampering, there are other candidates who cost Gore more votes than Nader in Florida. Perhaps most notably, 12% of Florida Democrats voted for Bush.
  2. Third-party candidates don’t “steal” from similar candidates. In fact, there is some evidence that they hurt the most dissimilar¬†candidate, not the most similar one. This may be a result of shifting the discourse and convincing some people that the dissimilar candidate is too extreme or that the “moderate” two-party candidate is not so bad after all.

Having said that, let’s suppose that you still think it’s “practical” and “strategic” to vote for one of the two most popular candidates. If this is your response, I have a simple question for you.

What is your goal?

Most people who advocate voting based on the spoiler fallacy aren’t actually thinking strategically. They’re thinkinging tactically — what tactics can I use to make sure that someone who I voted for gets into office — but they’re not thinking strategically. They’re not thinking in terms of goals and values, the foundation of all strategic thinking.

The simple fact of the matter is that neither the Democratic Party nor the Republican Party shares my goals and values. Neither is demonstrating a strong commitment to taking action on anthropogenic global warming. Neither is demonstrating a strong commitment to stopping fracking. Neither is demonstrating a strong commitment to stopping drone strikes, wars of aggression, and other harmful intrusions into the policies and lands of other nations. Neither is demonstrating a strong commitment to the rights and opportunities of workers, including but not limited to a living wage and a serious green jobs program. Neither is demonstrating a strong commitment to ending our inherently racist and classist immigration policies. Neither is taking action to implement voting reforms such as instant runoff voting or (gasp!) more direct voting on public policy by the general public.

I will admit that there are some issue in which one party sometimes takes a stance that I agree with when it is convenient to do so. Some individual candidates will give lip service to one or more of the aforementioned goals, and a rare few will actually follow through on one or two of them. But I hardly consider that to be a sufficient justification for winning my vote. Our principles are demonstrated not only by what we say, but also by what we do. Neither party’s actions reflect a strong commitment to my core values and associated goals. So I must choose another option.

It simply is not strategic to vote for a party that does not share — and often actively opposes! — your goals and values. All that such voting does is encourage the two dominant parties to become more and more oppressive and destructive because no one is left to hold them accountable.

Voting for third party candidates who share your goals and values is a strategic choice. It is a tangible and practical way to support a shift in the direction of your goals and values. Voting for someone who does not share your goals and values simply because they’re currently more popular is counterproductive. Remember the many two-party candidates who have betrayed your values in the past and refuse to empower them to do so again. Instead of caving in to peer pressure and fear of the most horrific candidate, push for what you believe in. Seek to create a place for it in our society, both on election day and on every other day of the year.

If we’re ruled by fear when we enter the voting booth, our land will be ruled by fear when we leave it.

If after reading all of the above, you still don’t consider third party voting to be a strategic choice, then just know that for me, voting is also an ethical choice. I take democracy very seriously. Eventually, I would like to live in a society where all people are directly and democratically involved in the process of making public policy decisions. Until that day, voting is one of the few widely agreed upon ways to engage in the democratic process. I take voting very seriously and hold myself personally responsible for the actions of the representatives for whom I vote. If I cast a vote for someone, and they go around fracking Southern Illinois, supporting wars of aggression overseas, dodging action on global warming, etc., then I share in the responsibility for those actions. And I refuse to be a party to any of that. Instead, I choose to resist their harmful actions and develop more constructive solutions, both on election day and on every other day of the year.

This is my perspective on the spoiler fallacy. As you enter the voting booth this year, please keep this perspective in mind and vote accordingly. Educate yourself on the candidates and choose the one who you genuinely believe most closely represents your values. Regardless of what you do on election day, do what you can on every other day to create communities and societies where we the people are the ones making public policy decisions together.


My name is Treesong. I'm a father, husband, author, talk radio host, and Real Life Superhero. I live in Carbondale, Southern Illinois where I write books and volunteer for the Illinois Initiative. Follow me on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Patreon to stay up-to-date on my latest cli-fi releases and Real Life Superhero adventures. Sign up for my newsletter to receive free cli-fi in your inbox.

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My name is Treesong. I'm a father, author, talk radio host, and Real Life Superhero. I live in Carbondale, Southern Illinois. I write novels, short stories, and poetry, mostly about the climate.

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