Today I bought a stamp from the post office, affixed it to an envelope and mailed my ballot off to the Burlington County Clerk's office. Despite the suggestion by Mike Johnson '11 not to vote for a candidates I dislike ("Omens and prognostications," Oct. 19), I abandoned simplistic idealism and did the right thing: I checked off the name of my incumbent representative, who rarely fails to disappoint me. Why? Because his opponents are assured to always disappoint me.
I voted for a Democrat who opposed the health care reform and who disapproves of Muslims building a mosque in lower Manhattan. It would be nice to vote for none of the above (i.e. not vote for Congress), but I will not apathetically stand aside when there is a heated race between bad and very bad. While I might be able to exercise that third option, the district will still elect someone — it cannot just register collective disdain. It might not be pleasant to vote for such uninspiring candidates, but it is necessary.
As part of my due diligence, I looked into the stances of all the candidates on the ballot — something I encourage everyone to do before casting a vote, regardless of whether one is likely to vote for them. My incumbent representative may be further to the right than half of his congressional colleagues, but at least he supports essential legislation on environmental and civil rights issues. It's better than nothing, which my district would get from his opponents: a Republican, a Libertarian and two people running under the slogans "Tea Party" and "Your Country Again."
The general election is not the time for protest votes in tight races. Voting for Ralph Nader's 2000 campaign in Rhode Island or Utah was perfectly reasonable. Voting for it in Florida was not. While I wish that the United States had more robust third parties and an electoral structure to accommodate them, I am not willing to let foolish idealism get in the way of electing someone who is better than his opponent, even if underwhelmingly so.
Voting for some third party candidate (or not voting at all) when your vote is unlikely to matter in an election will demonstrate your displeasure without enabling the election of the greater of two evils. There is also the more drastic protest vote, which involves doing the same thing in a decisive election. It can send the important message that politicians need to keep their base content. However, without some semi-organized effort, the second tactic is unlikely to send any greater message than the first one does, while causing unnecessary electoral defeats. If progressives want to protest the timidity of the president and Congress, they should do so in an overt manner in 2012 where there is time left to plan, not by quiet apathy in 2010.
With only two viable candidates, voters are usually forced to make large compromises in order to support someone. If there were more viable candidates, voters could choose people closer to their own political preferences. Johnson does not like the idea that Harry Reid or Sharron Angle could be elected with a large majority of voters opposed to their state's senator elect. Unfortunately, giving voters a greater selection so they might vote with the passion he wants means that even fewer people would want the winning candidate to have that office.
Voting for the lesser of two evils is a necessary part of our political system. It would be nice to have a legislature more akin to parliamentary democracies, where there are often many political parties who regularly win seats. Despite many attempts, Americans should not expect viable alternative parties. Even in the best case scenario, a third party would suffer the fate of the United Kingdom's Liberal Democrats, who have sizeable support but relatively few seats due to the electoral system.
Perhaps I am just disheartened by only being able to support two candidates since 2006 without massive reservations. Maybe I am bitter that the Obamaphiles got to pretend they had a progressive candidate in 2008, while I was faced with another set of disappointing options. You may not want to resign yourself to such a bleak view, but pragmatism should nonetheless remain in mind. Elections are important, but the subsequent legislation makes the real difference.
I wish I had a more inspiring message, but such is life. When you have to, suck it up and vote for the lesser of two evils.
David Sheffield '11 is a math-physics concentrator and left social democrat from New Jersey's third congressional district. He can contacted at david_sheffield (at) brown.edu