A “clothespin vote” is a colorful term referring to a vote given to the “less objectionable” candidate despite a distaste for him or her. It’s commonly used during elections in which both choices are equally disliked. The concept is akin to “holding one’s nose and voting” and is closely related to the “the lesser of two evils” principle.
The term can be traced back to the tradition of depicting a person, particularly in cartoons, of trying to avoid unpleasant odors by putting a clothespin on his or her nose.
One notable example of a “clothespin vote” was during the French election of 2002, in which The Telegraph described the election as a choice between “cholera” Chirac and “plague” Le Pen, adding: “Many are promising to go to the polling booths tomorrow wearing rubber gloves, with clothes pegs on their noses as a symbol of their disgust.”
During the 2000 presidential election, William Safire lamented in the New York Times the choice between Al Gore and George W. Bush:
So I’m conflicted. But failing to vote is not an option; I know that even when one’s candidate does not win, choosers are never losers. Here’s my way out: our system offers us an opportunity to hedge our bets. Even when forced to cast a ”clothespin vote” (go explain that metaphor to a washer-dryer generation that has never seen a clothesline), we have a way to ease the pain of choice.
In the summer of 2016, disapproval of both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton was so high that a website called Clothespinvote.com was launched. As described here: “In excess of 25,000,000 Americans engaged in the primary process did not choose Clinton or Trump as a presidential candidate. The Washington Post cited in early June over 12,000,000 votes have been cast against Hillary and more than 15,000,000 votes against Trump. These voters have three options: don’t vote, write in, or cast a Clothespin Vote for one of the options on the ballot.”
There is much debate about concept of the clothespin vote, and whether it’s worth voting at all if you strongly dislike both choices. As argued by The Foundation for Economic Education: “Every eligible voter will have to decide, based on his or her own conscience, whether the Common Good compels voting for the LOTE. Each will have to assess the relative moral harm of the candidates, based on their own values.”
A 2016 Psychology Today article suggests that the clothespin vote – or compromise – is a hallmark of democracy:
Some people do apply the ‘lesser of two evils’ logic in their everyday life. They bolt upright and say ‘I’m not going to take this anymore. No compromise!’ It rarely turns out well for them. So why do we apply that logic to a national democratic election? To live in a democracy means compromise. Why suddenly the proud switch to a no-compromise rule when most of us know better than to apply that rule in everyday life?