A few of my Facebook friends from Texas began posting this week about early voting, and I wondered whether that is an option here in Massachusetts. But then I remembered that I still don’t know who I’m going to vote for next month. And the choice is not between the president and Gov. Romney, which anyone who knows me might suspect. I am considering voting for a third-party candidate.

inauguration watermelon, just part of the Oba-mania in D.C. in early 2009; photo by salem pearce

I voted for Obama last time, and I was proud to do so — to be a part of history, and as a symbol of my hope for a new era after the horror of Bush years. I didn’t think Obama was going to forever change U.S. politics, as so many of my friends seemed to (a Hillary supporter originally, I was slow to warm up to the eventual candidate), but it was a thrill to vote for the first black president of the United States in that country’s capital, an historically black district. I happily waited in a long line that beautiful morning in November 2008 outside my voting location, the Metropolitan A.M.E Church. And I was proud to cast my vote that day even though Obama was projected to win the district — and of course did with almost 93% of the vote (more about that below).

But Obama as president has disappointed — and on more than one occasion, infuriated — me, as I know he has many progressives. He ran liberal as a candidate and then as president ran straight to the center (although I don’t think he is as bad as President Clinton in that way). To name a few issues:

The president signed into law the National Defense Authorization Act, which includes the “indefinite definition” clause, a provision that allows for military imprisonment of U.S. citizens. (This law also makes the closing of Guantanamo — a campaign promise — more difficult.)

The president has deported an unprecedented number of undocumented immigrants during his term, despite a campaign promise of comprehensive immigration reform.

The president has ramped up federal raids on state-legal medical marijuana dispensaries, despite a campaign promise to end them.

And this Nobel Peace Prize-winning president has quadrupled (unofficially unacknowledged) drone attacks in Pakistan against terrorist suspects.

This is to say nothing of my devastation at the president’s refusal to speak out, as a black man with black daughters, about issues affecting black folks. And as I noted at the time, I was not impressed with his declaration of support for marriage quality.

I recognize that these are not everyone’s issues. And there are also things that the president has done which I’ve loved, such as health care reform and repealing the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. However, I think that at this point my concern outweighs my estimation.

To be clear, I do not consider Gov. Romney any kind of alternative (not the least because he doesn’t differ from the president on the above issues), and I am fairly confident that the president is going to win re-election. More importantly for the decision at hand, the president is sure to win my state of Massachusetts. If I lived in a swing state, the president would have my vote in an instant, and this thought exercise would not exist.

The other choices in Massachusetts are the Libertarian ticket, featuring former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, and the Green-Rainbow ticket, featuring Dr. Jill Stein (a former Massachusetts gubernatorial candidate), both of whom have positions that I find appealing — and who disagree with the prevailing orthodoxy on the four issues I mentioned above. According to this highly scientific website, I agree with Stein on 94% of issues and with Johnson on 82% (and Obama isn’t actually all that far behind with 72%).

But of course neither of them will draw anything more than 1% of the vote in Massachusetts. And I don’t know that I want either of them to actually be president: Stein in particular, by her dearth of political experience, is in no way qualified, and neither has been scrutinized and vetted on a national scale as I would expect to be the candidates for the most powerful job in the nation. Plus, I don’t agree with many parts of the Libertarian platform.

So I know who will carry Massachusetts; a vote for any other candidate won’t affect the fact that the electoral college votes will go to the president. Before I can answer the question of who I should vote for, I need to answer the question of why I vote.

Tritely, I believe that voting is my civic duty, part of living in a democratic society. The possibility of voting engages me with my elected officials and the issues that affect me, and the act of voting is a symbol of my investment in that society. I vote because so many others (particularly legions of felony drug-offenders, whose punishment does not end with serving time and who the vast majority of states strip of the right to vote) can’t.

taxation without representation; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

I lived for years in the District of Columbia without Congressional representation (despite paying federal taxes as all other U.S. citizens). On principle, that’s enough to propel me to the voting booth as often as I can, if for no other reason than to elect members of Congress who will give D.C. residents representation. Which reminds me of another way in which the president has madden me: He has done nothing to advance D.C. Congressional representation in Congress — and didn’t do so even when he had a super-majority in Congress. He wouldn’t even show symbolic support for the issue — which results in disproportional disenfranchisement of black folks — by putting the “Taxation Without Representation” license plates on the presidential limousine.

As it turns out, voting is not rational, as this 2005 New York Times article articulates nicely. It’s inefficient and ineffectual. There is almost no chance that my individual vote will affect the outcome. If I believe that it is nevertheless important — and many things in this life are both irrational and important (the Libertarian Party probably doesn’t even want my vote now!) — what are the considerations for who gets my vote?

Do I vote for a candidate about whom I have serious reservations but who is going to win, because that projection is based on people like me voting for him, and if everyone behaved otherwise, he wouldn’t win?

Do I vote for a candidate with whom I have more agreement but who has no chance of winning — and who I actually don’t want to see win anyway? Is there value — for myself, for society — in a symbolic vote?

I just don’t know, and I continue to struggle with these questions, which feel very important to me. There’s a chance that I don’t decide until I actually get to my voting place on November 6.


  1. Hi Salem,

    My personal feeling on this is that while voting is extremely important to the health and vitality of a civil democratic society, that is because it is a very practical activity – there is no ambiguity or uncertainty to it. We are giving a finite and perfectly-defined set of choices and we elect from among them. The real spirit of democratic politics is in the 364 days every year we work to expand possibilities and define what those choices will be. But on Election Day itself, for the most part the rule-of-thumb should be “select least-worst option,” hold one’s nose, and cast one’s ballot.

    In MA you do have a slightly different choice, since it seems unlikely that the candidate you actually want to see win the election has any chance of losing that state, so you can “safely” vote for a third-party candidate, but you do need to ask yourself a) “why? what benefit will this have?” and b) “will it be better if I help widen the margin against the worse of the competitive parties, so as to further discredit them?” In 1984, for example, conservatives could have easily voted for a far-right third party candidate and Reagan would still have easily defeated Mondale, but the stark margin of Reagan’s victory made him a more powerful president and also further discredited the Democratic platform of the time (precipitating the rightward drift of the party beginning shortly thereafter). I think, in the long run, that has served the interest of those with right-leaning politics more than a 10-15% showing by David Bergland would have, even if all those votes came from Texas and the Deep South and other safe GOP states. A stronger Obama victory in 2012 will serve to discredit the far-right politics of the GOP, and thus push national politics leftwards, more effectively than a stronger showing for Jill Stein would, IMHO.

    Hope you’re enjoying school!

    • Hi, Max. Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts. I really appreciate it, and I think you raise a good point, one I hadn’t considered, about discrediting the mainstream right (the extremism of which is indeed frightening) by voting for the mainstream left. I am generally a supporter of the two-party system (because I know how politics in Israel works!), so I wouldn’t be voting for a non-mainstream candidate to make a larger point; it feels to me like a personal question. Can I vote for the president and maintain my personal integrity? Or is there something bigger and more important going on here, as you suggest?

  2. Certainly your difficulties squaring your values with a vote to re-elect the President are more than valid – his positions on the issues you’ve highlighted are far from ideal. As it goes, though, I felt that way about Obama in 2008, and Kerry in 2004, and would have felt that way had I been legally old enough to vote about Gore in 2000, Clinton in 1996 and 1992, and probably would have felt that way about FDR, Lincoln…all that to say that democracy rarely produces comfortable, easy, clean, or perfect choices – but it can produce clear ones.

    Ironically, I think we’d be better off with a system that encourage more parties, and Israel would be better off with a system that encouraged fewer parties. The Knesset has 12 parties representing 310mm people. You can find better ratios in Germany and France, which have (essentially) 6 and 7 parties and 80mm/65mm people, respectively.


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