As vice presidential candidates Tim Kaine and Mike Pence debated Tuesday evening, more than a few people were likely contemplating voting for a third party and wondering whether they would be wasting their vote.
At the same time, debaters at Pacific Lutheran University were sparring over that very question.
PLU’s fourth annual Ruth Anderson Public Debate, titled “Resolved: A Third Party Vote is a Wasted Vote,” drew more than 130 people to the Karen Hille Philips Center on campus in Parkland on Tuesday.
The two-hour event featured state Democratic spokesman Aaron Sherman and University of Washington Tacoma professor Ben Meiches, who were respectively paired with PLU sophomore debate team members Mariah Collier and Tate Adams.
The three-round bout featured 7-minute opening statements from each presenter, followed by questions from PLU forensics coach Justin Eckstein and audience members, and concluded with 3-minute closing arguments from the same groups.
The goal: To win over audience members, who declared their positions by text message at the beginning and the end of the program. Whichever side could persuade the most people would win the debate.
Sherman and Collier staked out the position against voting for third-party candidates.
“A third-party vote is wasted,” said Sherman, a PLU alumnus, in his opening statement. “It lacks efficacy and is a rejection of actual governance.”
Sherman said Bernie Sanders was able to effect change more efficiently by running for the Democratic presidential nomination than he would have been able to as a third-party candidate because he forced nominee Hillary Clinton to move further toward the left on a variety of campaign issues.
Adams, an Olympia native and double major in political science and communication, called that idea “toxic.”
“The only way a vote can be wasted is if it is not principled,” he said.
He cited a Pew Research Center poll that said about one-third of millennials will vote for a third party in November’s election. Only 1.5 percent of voting Americans picked a third-party candidate in the 2012 presidential election.
“The lesser of two evils is still evil,” Adams said.
Collier, a Gig Harbor native and business finance and economics double major, framed her argument around the paradox of choice — the sociological theory that says as a person’s choices increase, their satisfaction decreases.
“The two-party system still allows for freedom of choice,” Collier said. A choice between 30 parties would be so overwhelming as to always be dissatisfying.
Meiches countered that a more-diverse political culture can better represent a country’s citizens.
“The mere existence of these parties puts pressure to the main parties,” Meiches said.
And, he said, every vote for a third-party candidate strengthens the existing parties, contributing to a pluralistic political system even if the candidates themselves never win.
At the end of the debate, the audience voted by text message for the side they supported. Adams and Meiches, who argued for supporting third-party candidates, won the day, convincing 26 of the 76 voting audience members who began the evening undecided or opposed to third-party voting to change their minds.
Eckstein, the moderator, said he began the debate to give students and community members a chance to discuss issues of public concern in a public setting. The event also has a practical aspect: The Parkland area has the lowest voter turnout in Washington state, he said.
“I think the nature of the election definitely drove people to start asking questions about third-party candidates,” Eckstein said.