American Voice 2004: Can I vote for a third party candidate without undermining a major party candidate?

Date: 1 Jun 2004 | posted in: From the Desk of David Morris, The Public Good | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

Q.  I’ve heard that there is a way in which a vote for a third party candidate like Ralph Nader would not take a vote away from the major party candidate, in this case John Kerry. It would work like this. Nader would direct any Nader elector to the Electoral College to vote for John Kerry. That way voters could demonstrate their dissatisfaction with both political parties while at the same time not undermining John Kerry’s candidacy.  Would this work?


Let me take the liberty of broadening the question. Let’s say you are a conservative who prefers the Libertarian Party over the Republican Party or a liberal who prefers the Green Party over the Democratic Party. Is there something your preferred candidate can do that would allow you to vote for him (or her) without making it more likely that a candidate whom you oppose will win?

The answer is no. There are two reasons. One has to do with the mechanics of the electoral college. The other regards state laws.

I’ve discussed the history and workings of the Electoral College elsewhere. With regards to this question, the key factor is that in 48 of the 50 states (plus the District of Columbia) the candidate that wins the most votes wins ALL the electoral votes. Thus in Florida in 2000 the 537 vote margin by George W. Bush over Al Gore translated into Bush’s winning all 25 of Florida’s electoral vote. In that situation, and in 47 other states, a vote for Ralph Nader would indeed be a vote against John Kerry as would a vote for the Libertarian Party be a vote against George Bush.

Only two States, Nebraska and Maine, do not follow the winner-takes-all rule. In those States, there could be a split of electoral votes among candidates through the State’s system for proportional allocation of votes. For example, Maine has four electoral votes and two Congressional districts. It awards one electoral vote per Congressional district and two by the state-wide, “at-large” vote. It is possible for Candidate A to win the first district and receive one electoral vote, Candidate B to win the second district and receive one electoral vote, and Candidate C, who finished a close second in both the first and second districts, to win the two at-large electoral votes. Although this is a theoretical scenario, it has not actually occurred.

It might be instructive to recall the impact of Ross Perot’s candidacy in 1992. Perot won a sizeable proportion of the popular vote nationwide: 19 percent. But he did not win a single electoral vote.

There is another factor at work here: state laws. Although the U.S. Constitution does not require electors to vote for any specific candidates, state laws do. Electors in 26 states are required to cast their vote for the candidate they represent. In 24 states electors are not bound by State Law to cast their vote for a specific candidate. In those states, in theory, if a third party candidate won a majority of votes, that candidate’s electors could still vote for someone else.


David Morris
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David Morris is co-founder of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and currently ILSR's distinguished fellow. His five non-fiction books range from an analysis of Chilean development to the future of electric power to the transformation of cities and neighborhoods.  For 14 years he was a regular columnist for the Saint Paul Pioneer Press. His essays on public policy have appeared in the New York TimesWall Street Journal, Washington PostSalonAlternetCommon Dreams, and the Huffington Post.