Third-party voting: a wasted vote or a valid option?


In most American elections, voters are provided with two main choices for each position: one Republican and one Democrat. There are other candidates in third party positions, such as the Libertarian Party or the Green Party, but despite their valid candidacy and sometimes millions of votes, minor party candidates haven’t been able to earn any electoral votes since 1968. 

To citizens wanting to vote today for someone other than Trump or Biden, there are other options, but will they make a difference?


Although George Washington warned against forming factions in his farewell address, the first political parties, the Federalist Party and the Democratic-Republican Party, were formed between his own former cabinet members soon after Washington stepped down. Over the next century, these two parties transformed several times, eventually settling on the Democrat Party and the Republican Party, where the names have remained despite how their values have changed over the years.

While the two-party system has dominated, third party candidates have persisted. The most notable time a third party significantly determined the outcome of an election was when Teddy Roosevelt formed the Bull Moose Party in an attempt to unseat William Howard Taft, splitting the Republican Party and causing Woodrow Wilson to win the election. 

The existence of third parties changed the result of an election again in 1996, when Ross Perot earned almost 20% of the popular vote. It is thought that Perot’s influence took votes away from George H.W. Bush, causing Bill Clinton to win.

Because of how third parties tend to split elections in this fashion, it may be seen as a better choice to vote for the lesser of two evils. This is why third party votes are considered to be wasted votes, as they are seen as taking away votes from the better candidate of the main two parties.


In 2020 especially, we’ve seen how the polarization of two main political parties can damage the government and the nation it governs. 

Dr. Wendy Rohleder-Sook, an assistant professor of Political Science at FHSU, says the 24-hour news cycle and social media are two factors that have played a large role in contributing to the polarization of the two main political parties. 

“The 24-hour news cycle has necessitated the need for more content, which has included opinion, rather than strictly ‘news,’ shows. Social media has become a vehicle for spreading information, whether accurate or not, very quickly to almost everyone on the planet,” Rohleder-Sook said. “Our political leaders have further encouraged this divide by their behavior (unwillingness to compromise) and their rhetoric.”

Dr. Jay Steinmetz, an assistant professor of Political Science at FHSU, suggests that there is a more primal reason behind increased polarization.

“Studies on polarization suggest it is not the issues that divide the left and right in this country – even the most divisive issues have a big broad middle of rough agreement among the public. Rather, polarization in this country is group or social polarization—we don’t see the other side as legitimate or even sane, we don’t live in the same neighborhoods or socialize with one another across the partisan divide,” Steinmetz said. “Polarization is tribal and is akin to being a fervent supporter of a sports team – and fervent hater of that sports team’s rival. Some studies suggest that economic inequality has exacerbated polarization.” 

The two-party system also makes lives difficult for those in states that are primarily red or blue, particularly if the current government reflects the opposite party.

“Liberal voters in Kansas and conservative voters in California know that their votes hardly matter. This depresses voter turnout. This also encourages liberal presidents to not care about Kansas and conservative presidents to not care about California,” Steinmetz said. “A striking example of this is Trump and the California wildfires. Despite the fact that those fires actually affect more conservative areas of the state, Trump very clearly does not care and rarely mentions it.”

Rohleder-Sook provides these resources for more information on party polarization.


The main alternative to a two-party system is a multi-party system with proportional representation.

“The US has a majoritarian, winner-take-all system. Most countries in the world do not have majoritarianism but some form of proportional representation,” Steinmetz said. “In proportional representation, voters vote for parties, not individuals, and the vote share a party gets in an election roughly mirrors the power share in government. 

“Say the Green Party gets 15% of the vote in a given country with proportional representation, that would roughly translate into 15% of the seats in a legislature.”

However, as with any system, proportional representation has its flaws. 

“One potential downside is that governing coalitions can be shaky and collapse if a given party in the governing coalition decides to leave, which would result in snap elections and/or attempts to create a new governing coalition,” Steinmetz said.


To cause such a drastic change in this system, whether it be the rising of a third party as a majority party or forming a system of proportional representation, there would need to be significant civil unrest.

COVID-19 has caused many difficult situations for the U.S, economically and socially. After the uprising for racial equality after the death of George Floyd, the question remains: how much more can the system take the structure of the government changes?

“The coronavirus could have been a trigger for like a third party, but because it happened in a year of such preexisting partisan issues, I think it just drove the parties a little deeper as a result of masks being politicized and even the virus itself being politicized, it just drove home that there are two parties,” Sidney Sullivan, a political science student at FHSU, said. 

So while COVID-19 set the stage for a potential change, because it strengthened political parties, the system has yet to break.


Because third parties are not likely to win the election, a vote for a third party is considered a wasted vote, since the vote would be better spent choosing one of the two candidates who supports your values the most.

Steinmetz agrees the third party vote is a wasted vote.

“Yes, of course it is wasted and everyone pretty much knows it,” he said. “This is called the psychological effect of Duverger’s Law—good candidates are less likely to run third party campaigns, donors less likely to give money, and voters less likely to give votes, because everyone knows that in the vast majority of contexts third-party campaigns go nowhere.”

Knowing that they aren’t likely to win, third parties continue to run for office each year in an attempt to upset the two-party system. 

Jo Jorgensen, the presidential candidate for the Libertarian Party, twists the wasted vote concept into a way of building pride behind independent voting. 

With voter turnout rates in the U.S. being so low in the past, one thing is for certain: it is better to vote for a third party than to not vote at all.

Sound Off!