In My Words: Democrats must end their shaming of third-party campaigns

In a column distributed by the Elon University Writers Syndicate, Professor of Psychology Mathew Gendle argues that shaming third-party voters for their electoral choices is uncalled for and profoundly undemocratic. The column was published by the Greensboro News & Record, the Butner-Creedmoor News and Restoration News Media outlets.

By Mathew Gendle

Cornel West’s recent entrance into the presidential race as a Green Party candidate has re-invigorated talks about third-party contenders in state and national elections. West provides a prominent voice to social and environmental justice concerns that are shared by a great number of voters but are often ignored by both Republicans and Democrats.

Mat Gendle, professor of psychology and director of Project Pericles

For many voters, the inclusion of additional candidates for the 2024 presidential contest should be most welcome. Neither of the likely nominees for president from the major parties currently commands support from anything approaching a numerical majority of the electorate. Recent polling has repeatedly demonstrated that both Donald Trump and President Biden are widely unpopular, and a significant majority of U.S. voters indicate that they would prefer someone else to both run for election and serve as the country’s next chief executive.

One might expect that such low popularity numbers would produce widespread excitement around the possibility of other candidates entering the electoral fray. But this has largely not been the case, particularly among the Democratic Party establishment, who are already raising concerns about West’s candidacy. This opposition is grounded in the history surrounding the past presidential campaign efforts of Ralph Nader and Dr. Jill Stein, and the general understanding that these candidates served as “spoilers” that derailed the aspirations of Democratic nominees Al Gore and Hillary Clinton.

Democrats are concerned that West’s campaign, which will no doubt be steeped in progressive and democratic socialist principles, will capture the votes of some left-leaning voters who might otherwise vote for Biden. Given the likely razor-thin margin of victory for either Biden or the Republican nominee in a head-to-head matchup, Democrats fear that West’s candidacy could result in the return of the Oval Office to Republican hands.

Despite the election being over 450 days away, the concern that West will undermine the Biden campaign’s potential path to success has resulted in some Democrats demonizing supporters of West and third-party candidates. In some political circles, catchphrases like “A vote for West is a vote for Trump!” are already circulating. But is such an assertion true?

In abstract reality, a third-party vote doesn’t directly help either the Democratic or Republican candidate. In fact, it harms each candidate’s electoral chances by equally decreasing the percentage of the overall vote they receive. When confronted by the raw math, the assertion that a vote for a third-party candidate automatically benefits the Republican nominee is shown to be false.

The fallacy that third-party votes function to help Republicans win elections is based on a particularly pernicious and offensive presumption by Democrats — that they “own” all the votes that would not be otherwise cast for the Republican candidate. Let me be clear — this is insulting beyond measure. Votes are, of course, an expression of an individual voter’s personal and policy preferences and are not the assumed property of any political party. It is impertinent for Democrats to presuppose that they automatically hold sway over the entirety of the left and progressive voting bloc simply because they have historically provided a major party candidate who stands in at least partial opposition to Republican policies.

If Democrats wish to win the support of a wide spectrum of progressive voters, they need to stop engaging in electoral fearmongering and insulting peoples’ voting choices. Instead, they should focus on running better candidates that have a wide popular appeal, and also demonstrate that the party has the capacity to meaningfully enact legislative policies to address problems that everyday Americans care about. Rather than immediately awarding their nomination to Biden, Democrats must additionally commit to running an open and legitimate nationwide primary process to identify the party’s candidate for the 2024 election.

If the Democratic Party truly seeks to promote the fundamental principles of democracy, they should welcome third parties into elections, rather than actively engage in legal interference, such as their lawsuit that sought to keep Green Party candidates off the 2022 mid-term election ballot in North Carolina. Free and fair elections can only operate if people can truly believe that they can vote for their preferred candidate and not be demonized if their choice falls outside of the presupposed Republican-Democrat duopoly.

Views expressed in this column are the authors’ own and not necessarily those of Elon University.