OPED: In defense of third-party candidates

Michael Smerconish
The Philadelphia Inquirer
Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein on Aug. 19, 2016 at the Holiday Inn Lower East Side, in New York City, N.Y. (Dennis Van Tine/Abaca Press/TNS)

If you’re looking to assign culpability for the election of President Trump, stop blaming Jill Stein, Gary Johnson, and those who voted for either.

Focus instead on the four in 10 Americans who were eligible to vote and did not do so in 2016 — a higher percentage than the portion of the country who voted for either Trump or Hillary Clinton. That’s the takeaway from a new analysis from Pew Research Service.

Pew’s release last week coincided with votes being counted in close races in Ohio and Kansas, where similar criticisms of “long-shot candidates” abounded. In Ohio’s 12th Congressional District, a usually “deep red” district, the latest vote count has Republican Troy Balderson leading Democrat Danny O’Connor by only 1,564 votes.

When the election night returns rolled in, many O’Connor supporters castigated Green Party candidate Joe Manchik, an easy foil because he’d once written that he descended “from a planet orbiting a star in the Pleiades star cluster.”

Manchik garnered 1,129 votes, and some were quick to blame him for O’Connor’s apparent loss.

In the Kansas Republican gubernatorial primary, acting Gov. Jeff Colyer waited a week before conceding to Secretary of State Kris Kobach. There the final margin was just 345 votes, which is far less than the vote total obtained by a GOP candidate too young to even vote for himself – 17-year-old Tyler Ruzich, who amassed over 2,000 votes.

Again, some said Ruzich was a spoiler for the outcome in the GOP primary. But that’s not fair, either.

Blame doesn’t properly rest with either Manchik or Roozick, two combatants like those Theodore Roosevelt had in mind when saluting those willing to enter the arena with faces marred by dust, sweat, and blood.

Nor is anyone who voted for either at fault with regard to the election result.

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If you don’t like the outcomes in Ohio or Kansas, blame those who didn’t vote, not the predilection of those who did.

It’s the same story with the 2016 presidential results. If more nonvoters had voted, Hillary Clinton would have won the election, according to the Pew analysis. Simply stated, the demographic groups supportive of Trump turned out; those that supported Clinton made up a much greater share of nonvoters.

As noted by Pew: “Compared with validated voters, nonvoters were more likely to be younger, less educated, less affluent and nonwhite. And nonvoters were much more Democratic.

“Thirty-seven percent expressed a preference for Hillary Clinton, 30 percent for Donald Trump and 9 percent for Gary Johnson or Jill Stein; 14 percent preferred another candidate or declined to express a preference. Party affiliation among nonvoters skewed even more Democratic than did candidate preferences. Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents made up a 55 percent majority of nonvoters; about four-in-ten (41 percent) nonvoters were Republicans and Republican leaners. Voters were split almost evenly between Democrats and Democratic leaners (51 percent) and Republicans and Republican leaners (48 percent).”

Passion won the election. Trump’s electorate, whether motivated by genuine support for his candidacy or by the opportunity to vote against Clinton, was more committed to showing up in those states critical to victory in the Electoral College, even if they were outnumbered among all who voted and the general populace.

That’s got nothing to do with third-party or other long-shot candidates and their supporters.

Not surprisingly, that’s how Jill Stein sees it. On CNN last week, she said that 60 percent of Americans have concluded that the two-party system has failed and she now supports a voting reform movement gaining traction in many American cities and one state’s election.

“There’s a small, simple voting reform that actually changes the way our votes are counted. It’s called rank-choice voting,” she said. “It was just passed by the state of Maine. Used in their primary, they had a bigger turnout than ever. It makes the point that people don’t show up to vote or they don’t vote for the establishment candidates because they don’t speak to their needs.”

Voters in Maine’s statewide elections will now follow a system that is already utilized in elections in Australia, Ireland, and New Zealand, as well as in Minneapolis and St. Paul, and for the tabulation of military and overseas ballots in five states, plus numerous collegiate elections.

Instead of facing a binary choice, these voters will rank the entire field of candidates by preference. Unless a candidate secures a majority of “first choice” votes, the candidate with the least number of votes will be dropped and his/her votes reallocated to the voters’ “second choice.” The process continues until one candidate gets a majority of all votes.

Of course, if instead you’d rather blame those who ran as long shots, or those who voted for them, you would be pleasing two constituencies — the major parties that want to continue the status quo.

– Michael Smerconish writes for The Philadelphia Inquirer, and is host of “Smerconish” on CNN. Readers may contact him at