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Quite often nowadays you see things like "a vote for a third party is a vote for Trump/Hillary" (depending on what side of the political spectrum you typically fall on). I understand the argument here. If you typically vote democrat but refuse to this time around, then you're "taking away a vote from the Democrats" and with a 2 party system, you're effectively giving a vote to the other party. However, if I'm not going to vote for a candidate anyway, how am I taking a vote away from them?

Is this a steadfast argument?

  • I get where you're coming from, but can you draw out what is specifically philosophical about the question rather than "riddly"? – virmaior Jul 21 '16 at 12:55
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    The "voting system" counts the votes assigned and not the non-votes, fullstop. If only one citizen will vote, his single vote will elect the President... this is the "rule of the game". There is nothing affecting "logic" in this problem; at most we can say that is a moral/political issue. – Mauro ALLEGRANZA Jul 21 '16 at 14:02
  • This seemed like the best place to ask a question about the solidity of an argument. If the question is misplaced, then I don't mind if it's moved or closed as off topic. This is just something I've been curious about lately. – user28375028 Jul 21 '16 at 15:04
  • @virmaior I think the question stands, as it pertains to logical reasoning, and maybe game theory, and as such isn't too different from the various "what is the fallacy being committed type questions". – Alexander S King Jul 21 '16 at 15:47
  • This is a question of the interpretation of language -- taken in a block headed literal sense "A vote for third party person X is a vote for Y" is just false. If you expand out what people who say this are trying to convey, it is either (a) not an argument (some sort of moral/social pressure), or (b) trivially obvious (you could help Z to win by voting for him/her, but won't, so now Y is more likely to win). I don't see the philosophical meat here. – Dave Jul 21 '16 at 16:24
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To quote Bill Clinton, it depends on what the definition of "is" is. If "is" is meant to express strict equivalence, the statement is false. If the race is between major party candidates A and B and minor party candidates x and y, a vote for x is not exactly the same thing as a vote for B, for at least the following reasons:

  • The standing and legitimacy (and potentially funding) of x's party may depend on total number of votes, even if x does not win.
  • A vote for x may influence A or B to adopt elements of x's platform.
  • A vote for x may feel like a more morally correct choice to voter v, which in turn might change v's relationship to the political system.
  • Being associated with x's party might have a personal impact on v (it might give v a different perspective).
  • Even if it is unlikely, x might actually win if enough voters make the choice to vote for x.

If "is" is meant only to express the direct results of the election in terms of the eventual winner, however, it might be true that the impact of switching from candidate A to x is similar to switching from A to B. In the aggregate, when x draws largely or exclusively from candidate A, voting for x accrues to the benefit of B. Of course, however, the numerical impact is only half as large, because a vote is subtracted from A but not added to B, so even here, the accuracy of the statement is questionable.

Considered as an argument, if the intent is to convince the audience that voting for x is exactly the same as voting for B, this commits the logical fallacy called "false equivalence." More charitably, however, it might be considered as an exaggeration of a valid underlying point for rhetorical effect (in the case that the strict truth of the claim is not implied). In any case, the more honest (and more sound) claim would be "voting for x instead of A increases B's chances of winning."

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There are two levels at which one can analyze the argument “a vote for a third party is a vote for x”:


As a linguistic/logical point of view, the argument “a vote for a third party is a vote for x” is based on two assumptions:

  • That only the major parties y and x have any chance of winning, and that none of the other parties are ever going to win the election, and their candidacies are only symbolic.
  • That the person who is voting for the third party was going to vote for y if otherwise. So arguing the validity of the argument and the OP counter argument really comes down to whether these two assumptions are correct or not.

In particular, the OP states "If you typically vote democrat but refuse to this time around,", then the person should ask themselves if the 3rd party didn't present a candidate, were they going to abstain from voting, or were they going to vote for y?

If either of the above assumptions are incorrect, the OP is correct in stating that they aren't taking a vote away from Y anyway.


From an ethical point of view, the argument becomes "You shouldn't vote for a third party, because a vote for a third party increases the chances of X of winning". Here the premises is that the ethics of voting are consequentialist: We should make our voting decisions based on outcomes, not on principles. So the argument becomes: Should one vote based on outcomes, or should one vote based on principles?

See this post, and my reply to it for more details.

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A vote for a third party candidate that is truly an outsider is not a vote for either of the two party systems candidates that are part of the contrived dualism meant to consolidate and retain power.now if the third party candidate is in fact just another part of the plan and playing his part by subsuming criticism and helping totalize the narrative,thereby closing off any dissent from outside of the closed system they manage,giving people a way to disagree within the boundaries of social conformity.people will give more credence to ideas that come from multiple source and authority figures thereby reducing greatly any kind of true opposition.Not voting at all seems to be the moral choice and by not going ahead and voting just to fit in and entering a state of cognitive dissonance, much better for your mental health.

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It has never been true, in any way shape or form. It is merely a fallacious argument to inspire fear. At best, one might argue "a vote for a third party is half of a vote for x." Never is it a full vote. How much it's actually worth depends on how you choose to model the voting climate.

Case 1: Not voting
One simple case is to compare voting for a third party vs. not voting. Let's develop a fictitious scenario with two major candidates, Alice and Bob, and a third party candidate, Charlie. We will consider it from the perspective of an Alice supporter, so Alice's argument will be "A vote for Charlie is a vote for Bob." Now let's hypothetically say that the vote results coming in without your vote are:

Alice    1000
Bob      1500
Charlie    70

Now let's say you vote for Charlie, who then loses (as the majority like to claim will always happen). The final vote tally is 1000/1500. But what if you voted? If you voted for Charlie, the results would be

Alice    1000
Bob      1500
Charlie    71

The final vote tally is 1000/1500. In this perspective, voting for Charlie literally had no effect. What if you voted for Bob?

Alice    1000
Bob      1501
Charlie    70

The final vote tally is now 1000/1501. It is quite clear in this point of view, that voting for a third party is not the same as a vote for the other party. The vote for the third party had a different impact than the vote for the other candidate.

Case 2: We own your votes
In some elections, one side portrays the other side as such a vile evil destroyer of all things moral that not only do they make Hilter look like a good guy, but in fact could be so viciously evil when compared to him that the dreaded Hitler mustache comes back in style. (In some cases, both parties may portray the other in this manner, but it turns out that isn't important for this example). In such an election, it is assumed that the votes are naturally going to go towards the good candidate. It is assumed that all votes start as "pledged" for the only candidate worth voting for, and that the evil one sucks them away.

If someone has this point of view, then they may perceive any third party vote as "stealing" from their preferred candidate (Alice in our example). Let's explore a tight race where this might matter:

Alice    1251
Bob      1250
Charlie    70

In this example, I have taken the liberty of "assuming" that you already gave your vote to Alice, who is clearly the only viable candidate from this point of view. Of course, you're a conscious human being, so you can vote the way you want. Let's look at what happens if you vote for a third party instead.

Alice    1250
Bob      1250
Charlie    71

Your vote did change the result of the election. What was once a narrow victory for Alice is now a draw. There may be vote-offs or some other complication to resolve this confusion. You did indeed hurt "the one true candidate" by voting for the third party. But is it the same as a vote for Bob? Let's let you vote for Bob and find out:

Alice    1250
Bob      1251
Charlie    70

Now Bob emerged victorious. This is clearly the single most stressing case possible for this vote, and its being done from the most single-sided viewpoint imaginable. Even in this case, a vote for the third party resulted in a tie. A vote for the other party resulted in the other party winning. Anyone who thinks "A vote for the third party is a vote for the other candidate" clearly does not understand basic arithmetic.

At best we might claim that "A vote for the third party is half of a vote for the other candidate." Consider the first example, with Alice narrowly winning 1251/1250, but now two voters defect to Charlie. Now the situation becomes

Alice    1249
Bob      1250
Charlie    72

Now Bob wins by 1, just like like in the case where your vote went to Bob. However, it took two voters to do this, not one.

Case 3: The counter proposal
Personally, I get tired of this "a vote for the third party is a vote for the enemy" arguments. They are logically false in every way, and people are so fervent about them. Accordingly, I am typically very blunt with them. I ask who their favorite candidate is (we'll assume Alice here) and I say:

So you say a vote for Charlie is a vote for Bob, from your perspective. I thought a third party candidate was a good idea, but you seem to think it's a bad idea. So I'll tell you what. I'll stop voting for my third party: I'll go vote for Bob. By your own wording, a vote for Charlie was a vote for Bob, so you are no worse off than you were before, right? At least not by your perspective.

This typically shuts down their rational parts of their brain and they will start babbling about World War III or the murdering of babies in our inner cities or something like that. In the end, I don't mind. They were going to babble like that anyway, but at least they now know that they can't spout logical falsities like that and get away with it forever.

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I think that you could in fact say the statement is wrong purely on logical grounds.

The issue presumes that in an election, each vote actually has an impact on the result, but this is not really true. Most votes of the sort of people at whom these statements are aimed, make no difference to the outcome of an election in any case. The number of people who are seriously considering who to vote for from a consequntialist perspective are vastly outnumbered by the number of people who vote for who they've always voted for, and the number of people voting on the basis of the current view of their social group.

The statement therefore makes the mistake of claiming something which applies to some votes, applies to all votes.

So, the answer, I think, is basically no, it's not a sound argument because the votes of the kinds of people who might seriously consider the policies of a third party would probably be irrelevant to the end result anyway.

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Is this a steadfast argument?

Sure, inasmuch as it it resolutely comes up every four years ;)

Is it a sound argument? I suppose, but one persons modus ponens is anothers modus tollens...

Is it a valid argument? No.

Considering the mechanics of our Electoral College, it is understandable how people have come to this conclusion - especially since the elections in 2000. That said, every vote "counts" simply for the trivial fact that each vote is counted. Effectively, tho, the popular vote for our President is akin to an opinion poll - albeit the only opinion poll worth considering the day after it has been taken.

Noteworthy is that our votes for our executive officer are relative to the State they are cast in - there is no "national election", only a national total of popular votes. Roughly half of the States require Electors votes correspond with the popular vote, and, as there is nothing in our Constitution requiring they do so, the other half doesn't. So, the answer to whether "your vote for a third party candidate is taking away votes or giving votes to one of the major two parties" is relative to your States handling of Electors, but, again: nothing in the constitution requires that Electors give a seconds thought to the popular vote. And this with good resaon, as commented upon recently by Prof. John Searle.

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