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Steinberg: Don’t throw away your vote on Gary Johnson

A vote for Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson in the 2016 presidential election was effectively a vote for Donald Trump, writes Robert Reich, but there is a way to structure the electoral process to allow people to vote for a third-party candidate without the unintended consequence of giving a boost to a major party candidate you may not support at all. | Associated Press file photo

Just as many other Americans are contemplating doing this year, I threw away my first presidential ballot by registering a protest vote.

It was 1980. I was 20 and worldly as a tadpole. Voting for Ronald Reagan wasn’t a possibility for me — I considered him evil, the guy who, as governor of California, sent cops armed with shotguns into People’s Park, then shrugged off when a student protester was killed with, “Once the dogs of war have been unleashed you must expect things will happen.”

And Jimmy Carter had gone insane during his first term in office. I truly believed that, then and now.

So who was left? An independent named John B. Anderson, notable for his shock of white hair and 50-cent gas tax.

What’s the difference between then, and those who now plan to register their unease with Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton by voting for Libertarian Gary Johnson or Green Party’s Jill Stein?

A lot.

OPINION

Reagan crushed Jimmy Carter, mired in the hostage crisis and the energy crisis and a few more crises that don’t leap to mind. He received 489 electoral votes to Carter’s 49. Anderson took 6.6 percent of the popular vote, meaning that if myself and every single person who voted for Anderson instead voted for Carter, Reagan would still have beaten him handily. Our votes didn’t matter.

In 2016 we are looking at a very different race. Every vote matters. First, while Carter and Reagan had their pros and cons, this time one of the candidates, Donald Trump, is utterly unfit to be president. A bigoted, sexist, impulsive, ignorant, bellicose, tax-shirking fraud whose undeniable bad qualities are so numerous that it becomes tiring just to list them.

The other candidate is Hillary Clinton, a former first lady, senator and secretary of state whom people despise well, they offer lots of reasons, none of them particularly persuasive if you compare it to the reality of Donald Trump.

Despite this wild difference in candidates, they are running neck-and-neck. Trump was up in some polls before his disastrous debate performance last week which would have sealed the doom of any other candidate who hadn’t done whatever Trump has done to stay in the race (sold his soul to the devil? Enlisted the Russians as his tacit ally? It’s a true mystery).

Thus a symbolic vote can have real-world effects, the way the 2.8 million people who voted for consumer advocate Ralph Nader arguably tipped the 2000 election to George W. Bush, who got half a million fewer votes than Al Gore but beat him anyway, after some shifty legal footwork by the Supreme Court.

Facebook is alive with people pledging themselves to Johnson. And a few newspapers, including the Detroit News or, on Friday, our competitor, the Chicago Tribune, are squinting and beating the drum for him as well. Here’s the key paragraph from the Tribune endorsement of Johnson:

“We reject the cliche that a citizen who chooses a principled third-party candidate is squandering his or her vote,” the newspaper wrote Friday. “Look at the number of fed-up Americans telling pollsters they clamor for alternatives to Trump and Clinton. What we’re recommending will appeal less to people who think tactically than to conscientious Americans so infuriated that they want to send a message about the failings of the major parties and their candidates.”

Send a message to whom? President Trump? And what would that message be? “You won but it isn’t our fault because we voted for a person who isn’t you?”

Johnson not only can’t possibly win, he shouldn’t win. While not as epically unfit as Trump, Johnson still fails miserably. The moment he gawped at the word “Aleppo,” drawing a blank at mention of the epicenter of the Syrian war, is really all anyone need know about him. Being aware of the most important international crisis isn’t just a requirement for a potential world leader, it’s a requirement for a responsible resident of the world, and being that unplugged means Johnson deserves nobody’s vote.

Or should that message be: “We voted for a Libertarian loon who wants to privatize government rather than a policy wonk former senator and secretary of state who adheres to the admittedly-unpopular notion that the role of the government is to get stuff done”?

Choosing Gary Johnson is the Pontius Pilate, I-wash-my-hands vote. Doing something to make yourself feel good under the illusion that you are making some kind of statement. Here’s the thing. I don’t feel good about having voted for John Anderson. I feel embarrassed. Those who pick Johnson or Stein will no doubt feel the same.