Your Third-Party Vote Could Affect the Outcome of the Election, but Not in the Way You'd Hope

We live in a country where we have the right to vote for anyone we choose. However, the reality of our two-party system means the winner of the presidential election will be one of two people: the Republican Party’s nominee or the Democratic Party’s nominee. It’s been that way since 1852, and at this point, there’s too much money, power, and deeply entrenched belief wrapped up in these two parties for things to change anytime soon. Given that 48 of the 50 states pledge their electoral votes to the winner of the state’s popular vote — regardless of how closely the vote is split — the system simply doesn’t reward second place, much less third.

That’s not to say third-party candidates are powerless. In fact, they can make a significant impact on presidential elections — just not the intended one.

For example, in the 2016 election, both choices for president were fairly unpopular. As many as one in four Americans had an unfavorable opinion of both candidates. (And if you need any more proof of how contentious politics in the US have become, that number is double what it was in 2012 and about four times higher than in 2008.) This led to a large number of people voting for the candidates of two of the country’s better-known alternative parties: Libertarian Party nominee Gary Johnson and Green Party nominee Jill Stein. In Michigan, Johnson and Stein got 4.7 percent of the vote. Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton by just 0.3 percent, thus gaining all 16 of Michigan’s electoral votes. While there’s no way of knowing which of the two candidates voters would have chosen had they not gone third party, it’s possible those votes could have made a difference in the election, especially because this pattern continued in several key states.

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