Last Monday night, students across campus watched Bob Schieffer question Barack Obama and Mitt Romney on their respective foreign policy agendas. The next night, a much smaller number of students watched a different debate: The Third Party Presidential Debate organized by the Free and Equal Elections Foundation, which featured questions on marijuana legalization, campaign finance reform, and other issues largely absent in the presidential debates this season. The men and women who debated represented neither the Democratic or Republican parties, but instead the Constitu- tion, Justice, Green, and Libertarian Parties. While students who align with these third-party candidates are a significant minority at Harvard, they represent the political alignment outside the two-party system and experience varying levels of acceptance for their views.
THE SYMBOLIC VOTE
For students like Carolyn E. Killea ’15, the choice to vote third-party is a matter of sending a message. Killea, a member of the Harvard Libertar- ian Forum, knows that libertarian candidate Gary Johnson won’t win the presi- dency. But, even though she is reg- istered to vote in Florida, a swing state, Killea feels strongly enough about her libertar- ian ideology to vote for John- son and give up having a stake in the election of the next president.
“There are people who do care enough about—in this case—freedom [so as] to give up having a say in the discussion between two really similar political parties,” Killea says. She even has what she calls “cute little taglines” that she often says to help people understand why she votes libertarian—phrases along the lines of “A wasted vote is a vote for someone you don’t believe in.”
But even for students who do not definitively prefer a third-party candidate’s ideology, voting for a third party can be a way to express disgust with a political system that forces candidates to widen their appeal in order to garner more votes. Elena F. Hoffenberg ’16 is considering voting for Jill Stein because Stein is “able to take stands that the Democrats cannot actually take because they have to appeal to a wider base." While Hoffenberg is registered to vote in Massachusetts and believes that her vote for either candidate will probably not sway from Obama's projected win in the state, she has decided to weigh her choice between Green Party candidate Jill Stein and Barack Obama carefully.
Both Killea and Corinne H. Curcie '15, the president of the Harvard Libertarian Forum, acknowledge that some students at Harvard may actually align with a third-party ideology, but choose to vote Democrat or Republican for fear that a vote for a third-party candidate will go to waste. “Students may agree with us but don’t want to always be disappointed by political results,” says Curcie.
Killea feels that the average third-party supporter at Har- vard is likely to be more politically engaged than the average Democrat or Republican on campus. “Very few people are born into libertarianism,” Killea says of the contrast with Democratic and Republican views that are often inherited from parents. As of Saturday, an internal club survey shows that 45 percent of members in the Libertarian Forum are concentrating in government at the College or are studying at HLS or HKS.
But even in a university that is widely recognized as predominantly liberal, some non-Democrat, leftist students feel a lack of institutional space for their ideol- ogy. While the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences has a Harvard Socialist Club, Hoffenberg says many of her fellow left-leaning friends feel that the club does not represent socialists on campus well, and has found more leftist, third-party supporters in activism groups like the Student Labor Action Movement. Having such a palpable Democratic presence on campus, Killea suggests, may be drowning out the voices of third-party-supportive, leftist undergraduates at Harvard.
A MISUNDERSTOOD MINORITY
Third party student supporters have not always found their voting preferences welcomed by their peers. As libertarians, Curcie and Killea have experienced both explicit animosity and “forced politeness” from fellow students who don't understand what it means to be a liberatrian. Some simply aren't informed about the tenets of libertarianism, while others view it as a rogue wing of either the Democratic or Republican party, and see a vote for a libertarian candidate as stealing a vote from the major candidates in a close election.
Nevertheless, the Harvard Libertarian Forum currently boasts over 300 members, making it Harvard's largest third-party group. Curcie also acknowledges that many at the colelge may be "closeted libertarians," or members of the student body and faculty who unkowingly identify with libertarianism, or choose to keep their belief private.
Economics professor Jeffrey A. Miron identifies as an "economic libertarian" and has encountered people who misunderstand his views and stereotype libertarians as gun-toting, diehard Constitutionalists. Miron, who will co-teach Ethical Reasoning 34: “Liberty” in the coming spring, also believes that people are often more libertarian than they realize or acknowledge. Many people are “more fiscally moderate than Democrats and more socially moderate than Republicans,” he says.
Libertarians such as John E. Davison ’14 believe that much would have to change to earn third- party candidates more vis- ibility. For Davison, poll- ing methods represent a troubling practice. “Polls such as Gal- lup are set up in such a way where you are asked if you are voting for Barack Obama or Mitt Romney and very rarely include a third choice,” he says. “If you ask anyone who knows statistics, you already know that’s a weighted question.”
Killea supports holding open primaries, which would not force people to pick a side before they see the candidates. Hoffenberg suggests changing state laws to make it easier for candidates to appear on the ballot and allowing candidates outside the two main parties to partake in debates.
“The two main parties would have to give up a lot of their hold on the political process in an incredibly selfless and surprising move,” says Killea. “I don’t think that’s going to happen.” However unlikely this funda- mental change is, Hoffenberg sees an increase in third- party visibility as a necessary step in the path toward changing the political conversation in this country for the better.
Hoffenberg is still deciding what her vote means to her. If she votes for Jill Stein, she will be making a statement about a broken political system; if she votes for Jill Stein, she will be making a statement about a broken political system; if she votes for President Obama, she will have a greater stake in the election of the next president. "In a true democracy, I feel like you would just vote for whoever best represents your ideas regardless of their chances of winning," Hoffenberg says. "But that's not always the way it works."