Carl Hiaasen

Trouble lurks down the third-party path

Ralph Nader was a third-party spoiler in 2000, at least as far as Al Gore is concerned.
Ralph Nader was a third-party spoiler in 2000, at least as far as Al Gore is concerned. AP

Editor’s note: This column originally referred to Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson’s comments on Obi-Wan Kenobi and Frodo. Those comments were part of a satirical column by Andy Borowitz in The New Yorker, and Johnson never made them.

A fellow named Gary Johnson is running for president on the Libertarian ticket. He is an affable flake with zero chance of winning, yet millions of disenchanted Americans are expected to vote for him this year.

He once famously asked an interviewer, "What is Aleppo?"

This question would be much more amusing if Johnson were a non-factor in the election, and if the stakes weren’t so high.

Yet even after all the rancid revelations of the past 10 days, the race between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton remains close enough in a few key states that Johnson is potentially a spoiler. We’ve been down this path before, with crushing consequences.

Every four years, lots of fed-up Americans cast their ballots for fringe candidates whom they know can’t possibly win. This is a freedom we own -- the right to willfully waste a responsibility that most people in the world only dream of obtaining.

This year, when the two major U.S. parties have nominated candidates disliked by so many voters, there’s a strong temptation to turn to someone else – practically anyone else.

Perhaps you feel you’d be serving your conscience by voting for any other name on the ballot besides Trump or Clinton. Maybe you imagine waking up the next day proud of yourself for figuratively flipping off the establishment.

Lots of people thought the same thing back in 2000. That’s the year Florida botched the presidential balloting, and George W. Bush was declared the official winner here by a measly 537 votes over Al Gore.

That’s what sent Bush to the White House.

And that’s why Arlington National Cemetery now has so many graves in a place called Section 60, where military casualties of the Iraq war are buried.

Say what you will about Gore, but he’d never have listened to the likes of Dick Cheney and invaded Iraq, a disaster that ignited anti-American hatred in the Mideast, energizing first al Qaida and now ISIS.

Forget the hanging chads, disputed recounts and lawsuits. Here’s the true reason that Gore lost Florida, and the election:

More than 138,000 voters in the Sunshine State cast their ballots in that election for third-party candidates. Most of them you never heard of, before or since.

Harry Browne, John Hagelin, Monica Moorehead, Howard Phillips, David McReynolds and James Harris collectively siphoned off more than 23,000 votes. Today only a few of their friends and relatives remember they actually ran for president.

Pat Buchanan, the neo-conservative pundit, received 17,484 votes, including thousands mistakenly cast by Democrats in Palm Beach County who were confused by the ballot configuration.

By far Florida’s biggest third-party draw in 2000 was Ralph Nader, the iconic consumer crusader of the 60s, who with aging egomania decided to run for the White House as a candidate for the Green Party.

Nader knew he’d never win a single state but, hey, let’s make a statement!

Which was …? Exactly. Still, he got 97,488 votes, finishing third in the balloting.

The math from the 2000 fiasco is simple. If only 538 of the 138,000 Floridians who threw away their votes on no-chance, third-party candidates had chosen Gore instead, he would have won the presidency.

And Section 60 in Arlington wouldn’t have so many graves.

I went there a few years ago with my family and saw a young woman sitting bare-headed on the ground in a cold rain, in front of one of the markers. She was alone, crying and talking to the name etched on the stone.

A regular visitor to the cemetery said that the woman was there almost every day, grieving at the gravesite of her husband, who’d been killed in combat in Iraq.

She’d been coming for a long time, the man said, and always stayed until the cemetery closed, when workers would escort her to the gate. Then the next day she’d be back.

Every time somebody tells me their vote doesn’t matter, I think of that heartbroken woman and wonder what she would say if she heard those words.         

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