I've voted in every US presidential election since 2004. I could have voted in the Bush v Gore election in 2000 as well, but irritatingly I didn't even realise I was eligible to vote until several years later. I don't need to beat myself up too much over that, though, because I wouldn't have been voting in Florida, or in any other swing state for that matter. And the latter point is what it all boils down to, really - I've voted for fringe left-wing candidates in all of the last three elections (including a revolutionary communist in 2012, who strangely enough I backed with the encouragement of Lib Dem blogger Caron Lindsay!), because there just didn't seem to be any point in doing anything else. If my vote has no chance whatever of swinging the balance, why would I give my endorsement to centre-right Democratic candidates who take an abhorrent stance on the death penalty?
There is something intensely irritating, though, about seeing your vote for the most powerful office in the world treated as an abstention or a non-vote. If you look back at footage of results programmes from previous presidential elections, you'll find that with very few exceptions, the vote tallies for third parties are not even mentioned or shown on screen. Of course, that's a very good argument in favour of continuing to vote for fringe candidates - ie. to embarrass the media into changing their ways and helping to open up the system. But throughout this year, there's been a nagging voice at the back of my head saying "wouldn't it be nice, in this election of all elections, to be able to vote for a credible non-Trump candidate, and to do so in all good conscience?"
And for long spells, it looked like that might just turn out to be possible. Although Bernie Sanders was always the underdog in the Democratic primaries, there were times when it seemed he had a genuine chance of pulling it off. And there were certainly times when it was hard to see how Clinton could ignore the Sanders movement in her choice for Vice-President nominee - surely, even if she couldn't bring herself to pick Sanders himself, she'd have to reach out to his voters with someone like Elizabeth Warren? But no, it wasn't to be. The choice of right-wing, pro-death penalty Tim Kaine seemed like an absolute kick in the teeth, and a classic example of an arrogant politician saying to her own base : "I can do whatever I like and you'll have to support me, because you have nowhere else to go". Well, there's always somewhere else to go, and I started resigning myself to 'opting out' for a fourth time in a row, and voting for the Green candidate Jill Stein.
However, the attraction of voting for the only candidate who can actually defeat Donald "Make Our Doons Great Again" Trump just wouldn't quite let me go. When I filled in my ballot paper a few days ago, I voted in every single down-ticket race before I could even bring myself to properly look at the presidential box - that's how ill the dilemma was making me feel. In the end, I averted my eyes from the words "Jill Stein" and "Green", and got the dirty deed over with as quickly as possible. This is how I justified it to myself -
1) This election, far more than most, doubles up as a proxy vote to decide control of the Supreme Court - possibly for the next two decades. In the wacky world of US politics, the Supreme Court has effectively become a quasi-legislature with well-defined conservative and liberal caucuses. From that point of view, voting for anyone other than Clinton or Trump genuinely is an abstention - because one or the other will be nominating the new justices. In the dream scenario, if Clinton wins and the Democrats make significant gains in the Senate, there would be no impediment to the shaping of a liberal-dominated court that could transform America over the coming years. It would be a decisive victory in the interminable culture wars. (The alternative, of course, is to risk a decisive defeat under Trump.)
2) By American standards, Clinton is reasonably strong on gun control, which was the one issue on which she ran clearly to the left of Bernie Sanders. That's not nothing. I haven't bothered checking whether our old friends in the Kevin Baker Fan Club are generally backing Donald Trump or Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party, but I think we can safely assume that a Clinton presidency is just about their worst nightmare.
3) During the primaries, Clinton was dramatically challenged by a man who had spent years on death row for a crime he didn't commit, and asked how she could possibly maintain her support for capital punishment after hearing his story. I was quite surprised by how far she went in her response - she said she would be happy enough if the Supreme Court eliminated the death penalty in the states, leaving only a federal death penalty for the worst terrorism offences. It goes without saying that it is disturbing and appalling that in the year 2016, a supposedly "liberal" candidate in a "liberal democracy" is still in favour of the state putting its own citizens to death. But the depressing reality is that Clinton's words represented progress in an American context. She may well not really have meant them, but if a Democratic congress were to pass legislation imposing new restrictions on the federal death penalty, she'll find it very hard to justify using her veto after what she's said.
4) I suggested in the spring that there was perhaps a 3% chance of a Donald Trump presidency resulting in the destruction of human civilisation. A couple of anonymous commenters mocked me for saying that (one of them used it as an example of why I don't understand 'real' politics and should stick to polling analysis!), but I absolutely stand by it. If you look at the sequence of events that triggered the First World War - an accidental and unnecessary war that nobody really wanted - it's clear that bombast, buffoonery and narcissism played a big part. The mere possibility of an unstable character like Trump having his finger on the nuclear button is a crisis for the whole of humanity, and averting the danger overrides all other priorities. What complicates that point, of course, is that Clinton herself is being deeply irresponsible in her hawkish noises-off about Russia, meaning that the risk of nuclear war under her presidency would not be zero. But I'm confident that the risk would be dramatically lower with her than with Trump.
5) If there's a Brexit-style, small-to-moderate systemic error in the polls, it's still perfectly possible Trump could win the national popular vote. That obviously matters less than the outcome of the electoral college (which only voters in swing states can meaningfully affect), but if, say, Clinton were to win the presidency and Trump were to win the popular vote, it would be much easier for Trump to cast himself as the 'rightful king across the water', and keep his 'movement' alive to fight another day. It's probably a good idea to try to prevent that happening.