October 29, 2020 | Reading Time: 3 minutes

Not voting is barbarism

Voting third-party is even worse.

Share this article

I’m told that, compared to the Detroit Free Press, The Detroit News is second rate. So perhaps it’s not the best example of the point I want to make. Even so, the paper’s editorial in today’s edition provides an occasion for saying the following: not voting is immoral. You can choose—or you can have the choice made for you. You are not alone. You are among equals. Others are depending on you to engage the national political community. Not voting may seem principled, but it’s not. It’s an act of barbarism.

The News’s editorial, like all editorials, is the voice of the newspaper as a state and local institution and bedrock of Michigan’s civil society. Today’s editorial, overseen by Editorial Page Editor Nolan Finley, refused to endorse Donald Trump or Joe Biden. It refused to make a choice. Worse, it made that refusal appear as if it were noble. The headline: “For president, we can’t lend our name to men whose values we don’t share.”

Our political culture respects the refusal to choose. It lends the appearance of morality to what are immoral acts.

No doubt there were political calculations. The News is quite conservative. Finley is very conservative. The odds of the incumbent winning, which would be the preferred outcome, appear to be fading. Meanwhile, the future for Michigan Democrats seems downright rosy. The News is a business. It has a reputation to keep. A conservative daily paper deciding against deciding is probably a convenient way of saving face.

But you can’t base an editorial on the need for a local institution to avoid humiliation. It has to be positive. It has to be about values—at least the appearance thereof. In this, Finley has a lot going for him. Even if the News’ editorial is really about saving face, it can appear noble. American political culture, which elevates the individual above the community, which honors rights before it honors civic duties, respects the refusal to choose. After all, if you dislike both candidates, how can you vote in good conscience?

There’s the problem. Voting isn’t done in isolation. It’s social behavior as much as it is political behavior. America isn’t an abstraction. It’s a real political community of shared values (equality, for instance). Each and every one of us, citizen as well as non-citizen, is a member of this American community. It is indebted to us. We are indebted to it. The individual and the community are themselves equal. They are one. You recognize that fundamental or you don’t. If you don’t recognize a citizen’s minimal obligation to a free republic, well, I think it’s fair to doubt your commitment to it.

Here’s the tip jar! Put something nice in it!

You might disagree, but you can’t say not voting is socially or politically responsible. You can’t say voting for third-party or write-in candidates is responsible either. Given the context of an authoritarian president threatening our security and well-being, with 233,000 covid-related deaths and counting, you must concede the danger posed by the 43 percent of “undecided voters,” according to a Morning Consult poll, who might vote for someone other than Trump and Biden. In this context, votes for third parties are votes for the incumbent, but with the benefit of appearing independent and virtuous.

That’s worse than not voting. Not voting is refusing to participate. It’s telling the rest of us your dedication to democracy is soft. Voting third party is participation, but it’s participation in the form of political sabotage. Worse, it’s done “nicely.” It’s done “in good conscience.” It’s sabotage with gas-lighting piled on top. It’s destructive behavior that denies being destructive while accusing others of infringing individual liberty. Not voting and voting third-party/write-in reinforce each other to work against equality, indeed hold it for random. These are not acts of virtue. These are acts of barbarism.

Making all this worse is the attitude we must take to convince benighted citizens not to sabotage their own community. That attitude, infuriatingly, takes a tone of polite persuasion rather than empurpled contempt, which is what they deserve. Amitai Etzioni, the famed communitarian philosopher, took out an half-page ad in Sunday’s Times to plead with “progressive non-voters” to vote for Biden, not Trump or a third-party. “A few thousand votes for Ralph Nader cost Al Gore the 2000 election,” Etzioni wrote. “In 2016, 12 percent of Sanders supporters voted for Trump—enough to ensure his election. Your vote matters more than ever. Thanks for giving me a hearing.” (Full disclosure: I voted for Nader in Ohio! I will never ever ever vote third-party again.)

Like I said, Etzioni is polite, but politeness can’t stand up to a political culture that gives the appearance of morality to immoral acts. We need a different course.

—John Stoehr

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.


  1. Leslie M., Eastern KS on July 30, 2021 at 11:22 pm

    Ok, John. You’ve had me in your corner for some time, as you well know. But we’re cemented after today. “Empurpled Contempt” is utterly swag-worthy! 🙂

    The whole piece is spot on. My first vote, for which I will never forgive myself (though it did not make a difference, truly), was for John Anderson.

    • John Stoehr on July 30, 2021 at 11:22 pm

      Oof, I feel your pain!

  2. sjpratt on July 30, 2021 at 11:22 pm

    I hope that Ranked Choice Voting (on the ballot in MA) will change this calculation in the future. You can vote for Nader as long as Gore is your second choice.

    • John Stoehr on July 30, 2021 at 11:22 pm

      He would have been, yes!

  3. Scott Sauyet on July 30, 2021 at 11:22 pm

    I wrote something (https://crosseye.medium.com/its-all-my-fault-e99ccef6e57c) in 2016 about being responsible for the worst of Bush Jr.’s actions because of my vote for Ralph Nader (here in CT where it was clearly not going to change anything.) And I still stand by that.

    But someone I greatly respected — Jon Barlow, a now-deceased, long-time music professor at Wesleyan — argued that he was exercising his right not to vote. I don’t remember his actual arguments when pressed on it, but I remember him telling us how he found a sympathetic ear in an émigré from Russia where voting was mandatory. There are reasons of conscience which might prevent one from voting.

    Of course it you don’t vote, your complaints about political situations won’t get any sympathy from me.

    • jibal jibal on July 30, 2021 at 11:22 pm

      There’s a choice to be made between two non-perfect alternatives. It’s a cowardly moral cop-out to refuse to make that choice.

  4. hw on July 30, 2021 at 11:22 pm

    Voting in 2020 is analogous to wearing a mask in 2020…both are done not merely to protect our own self-interests, but to protect the most vulnerable in our society. Refusal to wear a mask is not an act of rugged individualism, it’s a denial of science and fact. Refusal to vote is not an act of principle, it’s an abdication of responsibility.

  5. RaffleBuffle on July 30, 2021 at 11:22 pm

    I voted for Nader also in 2000. It didn’t end up mattering in the state I lived in at the time (Iowa), but I still regret it–especially when I heard many years later how purposefully destructive his whole effort really was designed to be. Like you, I will never vote third party again.

    • David Mikulec on July 30, 2021 at 11:22 pm

      I voted for Perot. Because of NAFTA. And I still believe he was right. HeII, I’d vote for his corpse before I ever vote for another Republican (I switched Parties for good after 2004).

      • John Stoehr on July 30, 2021 at 11:22 pm

        Trade in a time of the ‘rona is going to be bonkers.

  6. Jim Prevatt on July 30, 2021 at 11:22 pm

    John I agree and appreciate your admitting you voted for Nader. I liked what he was saying too. My vote for Hillary didn’t help her be elected. I am literally frightened to think tRmp could be re-elected. If that happens I’ll be afraid to leave my BLM sign in our yard.
    Maybe I will just stop reading or watching any news or opinion until someone takes the oath of office in January

  7. SusanMarsh on July 30, 2021 at 11:22 pm

    And yet when I tell people that voting for a third party helps no one, they get mad, insulted, whatever. It’s their right. Both candidates are flawed. Has there ever been a perfect candidate? Well, I haven’t run yet, so no. C’mon. It’s not rocket science.

    • jibal jibal on July 30, 2021 at 11:22 pm

      There’s a choice to be made between two non-perfect alternatives. It’s a cowardly moral cop-out to refuse to make that choice.

  8. David Mikulec on July 30, 2021 at 11:22 pm

    I proudly voted for Perot (I had worked for his old company at one time) because of NAFTA. No regrets. I think he was right.

    • jibal jibal on July 30, 2021 at 11:22 pm

      It doesn’t matter whether he was right about NAFTA. You might as well have voted for yourself–a vote with no effect. There’s a choice to be made between two non-perfect alternatives. It’s a cowardly moral cop-out to refuse to make that choice.

    • SusanMarsh on July 30, 2021 at 11:22 pm

      As long as you were cool with Clinton getting elected, rock on. But Perot split the Republican ballot.

      But at least Clinton didn’t throw the country under the bus.

Leave a Comment

Want to comment on this post?
Click here to upgrade to a premium membership.