Column: Between two evils: What’s a partisan hack to do?

By Brian Pierce

As a loyal Democrat, I’ve always despised third party candidates. Over the summer, I wrote a column with some harsh words directed at Joe Parnarauskis, a Socialist Equality Party candidate running for state senate against Democrat Mike Frerichs and Republican Judy Myers.

I called third party candidacies “futile, cult-driven efforts to enact change that only end up getting the least preferred candidate elected.” I said that third party voters can live self-satisfied lives knowing they’ve voted their consciences, while the people who government can help or hurt the most – the unemployed, undereducated and underpaid – get hung out to dry.

I fully stand by those assertions, but for the first time in my young voting career, I have found myself undecided and flirting with the idea of voting for a third party candidate.

I refer to the governor’s race, a race that, for the first time, I am fully comfortable describing as one between the lesser of two evils. Allegations of corruption fly back and forth between two uninspiring, incompetent candidates. Democratic incumbent Rod Blagojevich is the frontrunner with 44 percent of the vote according to SurveyUSA and an approval rating below 40 percent according to Rasmussen. Republican opponent Judy Baar Topinka trails with 34 percent.

But what is truly astonishing is that Rich Whitney, the Green Party candidate, has amassed 14 percent of the vote. For a party that historically is considered lucky to receive 5 percent in an election, this is an incredible surge.

The most surprising thing about this result, though, is not how much support Whitney has garnered, but from where. While the typical Green Party candidate siphons away liberal voters from the Democrats, here Whitney receives a significant portion of votes from independents. Independent voters have been split in even thirds in the governor’s race.

So what is a partisan hack like me to do? All my typical defenses against third party candidates have disappeared: both main party candidates really are terrible, the third party candidate really is viable (if still a major underdog), and there is no perceived “spoiler effect” in which the third party candidacy results in the election of the least preferred candidate.

Still, Whitney’s platform is not appealing to me, and certainly isn’t appealing to (or even known by) all of the independent voters saying they will vote for him. He is too liberal even for me, as evidenced by his pledge to veto any mobilization of Illinois National Guard troops to Iraq. My vote for him, and most of the votes he could get, would be nothing more than protest votes.

I wonder, though, if there is any merit in a protest vote. Certainly a message would be sent to both the Democrats and Republicans to shape up before a third party candidate with a more acceptable platform runs and gets elected.

But while that’s a worthy message to send, the consequences of such an act could be dire if in the future a third party candidate does get elected who will not best represent the interests of the state. Reverend James Meeks, for example, a socially conservative state senator, considered running as an independent this year and could have potentially won. If a candidate like that is emboldened to run in the future thanks to a strong percentage of protest votes in this election, that candidate could win and enforce reactionary, harmful policies on the state.

But if a strong protest vote forces the Democratic Party in this state to reform in some meaningful way, and then Democrats dominate future elections, everything would turn out for the better.

I don’t yet know what my decision will be when I go into the voting booth this November. This is uncharted territory for me, and I tread it carefully and thoughtfully. As I internally debate whether Rich Whitney or Rod Blagojevich will earn my support, only one thing is certain: Joe Parnarauskis is still an idiot.