If I can’t vote for anyone, can I vote against someone?

The current U.S. election seems to be a race to the bottom. In the past, usually I could see a good argument to vote for one candidate based on character and issues, despite a few imperfections; in this election, the argument to vote against each one of the candidates seems stronger than the argument to vote for either.

Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia summarized the Catholic conundrum: “One candidate — in the view of a lot of people — is an eccentric businessman of defective ethics whose bombast and buffoonery make him inconceivable as president.  And the other – in the view of a lot of people – should be under criminal indictment.  The fact that she’s not – again, in the view of a lot of people — proves Orwell’s Animal Farm principle that ‘all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.’”

In that quote, Chaput is only talking about character, yet it seems both major candidates are seriously at odds with Catholicism on certain issues too. I won’t do an in-depth analysis, as I don’t want to beat a horse that’s already been killed three times over.

In such a situation, what is a good Catholic to do? I find it very hard to argue that you should vote for either of the two major candidates. I find many of my friends in a similar position, feeling they can’t vote for either candidate.

Nonetheless, in a democratic society, a Catholic has a duty to vote. I want to present three ways Catholics can vote with a morally clean conscience: they can vote against someone, they can vote for a minor candidate, or they can ruin their ballot.

Voting Against

Voting against someone would follow from the Catholic principle of double effect.

The opening scene of the movie Vertical Limit displays this principle graphically: a dad and his two kids are hanging perilously off a rock cliff by a single contact point and it’s slipping, so the dad instructs his son above him to cut the rope. Cutting the rope saves the boy and his sister, because they’re able to hang there until help comes, but it also causes the father’s fall and death.

This can often get confused with “choosing the lesser evil,” but in Catholic moral theology we can never choose evil. This is choosing the good which is realizable, or preventing evil when not all good is realizable.

To vote against someone technically requires placing a vote for another person, but to qualify as a voter against rather than a vote for, several principles need to be respected.

  • First, there needs to be no other way to prevent the dreaded result we are avoiding. If millions of Americans got together, a third party could win, but as an individual, it is a fair judgment to assume your vote for a third party won’t make it win.
  • Second, the person we mark our ballot for when voting against someone else needs to be less problematic from a Catholic moral perspective.
  • Third, our intention needs to be to prevent one person from taking the office and not to give it to the other person.
  • Fourth, we must fulfill the norm that our action is not intrinsically evil, because voting is good and we are explicitly trying to prevent the greatest evil from happening.
  • Fifth, there is a complicated point of means and ends: the means (voting for X) of achieving the end (preventing Y from being president) cannot be evil in themselves. Participating in politics to the degree it is possible is in itself good, and, if you are voting for someone with some redeeming qualities (which every candidate I know of has), you can be voting positively for those redeeming qualities. Thus, casting a vote for one of the two major candidates can be moral if it is done in order to prevent the other from taking the office.

A summary of this view was stated by a moral theologian, whose opening paragraph on who they were voting for was, “I am voting for [X] because they are not [Y].”

Voting Third Party

If you really feel like you can’t vote for a major candidate, there are always third party candidates. Some of them might align better with Catholic principles and your own values. Catholics I know and respect are voting for at least four different candidates beyond the major two.

The Green and Libertarian Parties have some support, but still have little chance of winning. And once we get to policy, the Greens and Libertarians seem to have significant issues for Catholic teaching too.

The third party option is mostly a way to show you vote for principles, beyond somebody’s chance of being elected. If such parties get a big chunk of the vote, it shows a direction the other parties might move to appeal to such voters.

This movement can often be easier to see in primaries with fringe candidates who run to move the party one way or showcase a movement more than win the nomination: Bernie Sanders and Ron Paul come to mind (I think Bernie was as surprised as everyone else he came close to winning, but you can see how he forced Hillary to move left to beat him).

If you want to follow this path, it is important to check who the listed candidates and valid write-ins are in your state, which you can easily Google.

Ruining Your Ballot

Catholics should make a reasonable effort to participate in political life such as voting, but when none of the candidates matches what you see the country needs and is in accord with Catholic teaching, spoiling the ballot is legitimate.

This can take many forms, from leaving it blank to writing in “Jesus Christ for Prez.”

It is similar to backing a third party candidate, except it is 100 percent a protest to the system and the candidates presented. It is important to show up for the election, as I’m sure that in some race, there is someone you can support – even if just for school board or county treasurer.

If you keep voting third party or ruining your ballot, it might be good to ask yourself why you don’t run. We need Catholics in public life.

Of the three options, I would tend towards “voting against” in states where the vote will be close, and one of the other two options where the vote will be lopsided. In a lopsided race, the chance your vote will prevent any candidate from becoming president is slim, while it is a serious concern in states where votes are close.

I personally maintain a certain distance, to be able to give moral analysis of all candidates. I will not vote on Tuesday, as I’m a legal US resident but Canadian citizen, so you can’t even try to ask me who I’ll vote for.

Your vote matters, and should be used to promote a better country more in line with Christian and Catholic values.