Don’t Expect a Third Party to Save America Anytime Soon

Teddy Roosevelt’s third party 1912 campaign realigned the two major parties (Public Domain: Wikimedia)

An oft-heard complaint in American politics laments that we need a strong third party to shake-up the current two-party system. Gallup does a yearly poll on whether a third party is needed. Almost every year, a majority of Americans answer affirmatively. In 2015, 60% yearned for a third party.

There is much to dislike with the current two parties. The two-party system is blamed for extremism that dominates both parties, impairs compromises and drives divisions that lead to many elected Democrats and Republicans hardly talking to one another. The media frames issues from a liberal and conservative perspective, implying that there are only two ways to look at a problem and deliver a solution: the Republican and Democratic ways. In effect, the middle has been squeezed out of the public debate. Moderate Republicans are called RINOs (Republicans in name only) and moderate Democrats DINOs (Democrats in name only). They are challenged in primary battles by more extreme believers who either defeat the moderates or force them to change their ways. Over the last few decades, the number of Republicans and Democrats in Congress who lean to the center have become an increasingly rare breed.

Donald Trump has made an issue that the electoral process is rigged. Despite his comments, it isn’t rigged against Trump. It isn’t rigged against Democrats or Republicans, unless lopsided, partisan gerrymandered districts are taken into consideration. In that case, they rig the system against each other. What is truly rigged are the hoops that third parties must run.

Third parties are regularly excluded from debates, face hurdles to get onto the ballot in many states that require an enormous investment in time, money and registrations. The Democrats and Republicans are on the ballot in every state. The Libertarians are in 33 states, although their Presidential candidate Gary Johnson is on the remaining ballots as either an independent or representing another state party. The Greens have ballot access in 21 states. Next is the Constitution Party at 15 states. Three other parties: Working Families, Reform and Progressive are on the ballot in four, four and two states, respectively. Another nineteen parties are on the ballot in just one state. In sum, third parties are in weak shape nationally. Yet, identification with the two main parties is barely 55%. Although only 3% identify with third parties, 40% don’t identify with any party. That should make for fertile ground for a third party. As Trump would like to say, the system is rigged – but only against third parties and centrist voices in the major parties.

A few of the worst examples are Alabama where a new party must get petition signatures equal to 3% of the last gubernatorial vote. In addition, to stay on the ballot the party must get at least 20% of the vote in a statewide race. In Illinois, a Byzantine petition process requires nominees to be identified before the petitions can be circulated and then separate slates for federal, state, county and district races that require signatures totalling 5% of the last vote cast. In sum, petitioners need to get signers to sign four different petitions. New Mexico requires minor party nominees to submit a petition with 1% of the last gubernatorial vote before they can be placed on the general election ballot. Major parties do not have that requirement. North Dakota requires that 1% of the population request a minor parties ballot in order to be able to nominate for the state legislature. That is not 1% of registered voters, who are the only ones who can vote, but 1% of the general population, which includes children, prisoners, non-citizen permanent residents and other ineligible-to-vote individuals. Pennsylvania requires 15% of the statewide registration for a party to be on the ballot. If that rule applied in other states, both the Democrats and Republicans would be off the ballot in several of them.

These are onerous rules that impair a true, grassroots movement from rising up and becoming a major national force. That is one reason that some of the most successful third-party and independent candidate runs for the Presidency have involved wealthy individuals like Ross Perot.

Even if a candidate does gain ballot access on most or all the states, then that candidate is often excluded as a serious candidate because of the nearly unattainable goal of 15% support in national polls in order to gain access to the debate stage. This is a considerable number because a candidate must generate a lot of interest and attention to get to that support while the two major party nominees are automatic locks. A candidate who polls 10% or 12% is a real threat to catch fire and win if given equal access. Unfortunately, once locked out of the debate, third-party candidates tumble quickly and precipitously. In American Presidential election history, there have been only five times when a third party candidate has received over 15% of the vote. Perot was the last one in 1992. The other times were 1924, 1912, 1860 and 1856. It is a requirement that will rarely be achieved.

It can be claimed that the traditional lack of third party successes justifies the 15% benchmark. However, that leads us to the next problem, a most intractable one at that. The Constitution is designed to squelch the rise of third parties to major party status.

Most of the world uses a parliamentary system. That involves the people electing representatives to parliament. It is conducive to a multi-party system because those parties often represent single or narrow platform issues. When parliament convenes, a majority party takes control of the government or must cobble together a coalition from small, single issue parties.

The United States uses a presidential system where the people elect the President and Congress separately. Traditionally, presidential systems have led to powerful presidents who dominate or overthrow the political system. There are multiple instances over the last two hundred years in Latin America, which has copied the American system in various forms. The presidential system differs from the parliamentary system in that it tends to create coalitions before the vote and not after the election as the parliamentary system does. While this is not strongly born out in all presidential systems, it is heightened in the American system because of the Electoral College.

The Electoral College is weighted according to each state’s Congressional delegation. Because there is a minimum Congressional delegation of three for each state (one House and two Senate members), small states have a larger proportional vote in the Electoral College than large states. California, which has 65 times the population of Wyoming, only has 18 times the electoral votes. That type of discrepancy has played a large role in the three instances where a President has been elected by having a majority of the electoral votes, but a minority of the popular vote. The 2000 election between George W. Bush and Al Gore was the latest example. Add a third party into this mix, and it becomes possible to elect a President with a large number of electoral votes and a weak plurality of the popular vote. Abraham Lincoln was elected in 1860 with less than 40% of the vote. Several other Presidents have barely achieved 40%. A winner with a low plurality upends the democratic notion that “majority rules.” It can happen occasionally in elections, but to happen regularly weakens faith in the system.

The real problem is when a third party wins electoral votes and denies one of the two major party candidates from getting an electoral majority. At that point, the election goes to the House of Representatives. The top three electoral college vote-getters then have their names placed before the House where each state has a single vote. This happened in 1824 when four candidates received electoral votes. Andrew Jackson, who received the most popular and electoral votes was denied the Presidency as the House voted for John Quincy Adams. Jackson even had a higher percentage of the popular vote than the victorious Lincoln did 36 years later.

In this no-majority, electoral-vote scenario, a state like California, with nearly 39 million people and 53 members in the House of Representatives, has as much influence in selecting a President as Wyoming, with less than 600,000 people and just one member in the House of Representatives.

This democratic travesty does not only bypass the winner of the popular vote to elect a President when the Electoral College is deadlocked, but does not even allow a parliamentary like-process where each representative has an equal vote to select the President. The President would be selected largely on geographical boundaries.
Third party candidates like George Wallace in 1968, who came a little over 200,000 votes away from flipping enough states to deny Richard Nixon an electoral majority, have tried to use the possibility of a deadlocked electoral vote to cut deals with one of the major candidates. In Wallace’s case, it would have been to roll back civil rights legislation.

A very slight possibility exists of this happening in 2016. Independent candidate Evan McMullin is a true conservative, unlike Trump, and he has a chance of winning Utah’s 6 electoral votes. If the national race tightens, it is possible that neither Hillary Clinton nor Trump could get a majority in the electoral college. That means the House would pick from Clinton, Trump and McMullin, who was only on the ballot in 11 states. McMullin could try to make a deal or persuade Republican House members to vote for him as the President. That this craziness is even a possibility is a political nightmare.

Every year voters toy with supporting third parties. There is nothing wrong with that. Third parties have influenced elections as Teddy Roosevelt did in 1912 when he ran on the Progressive ticket. Third parties have also espoused platforms that were eventually incorporated by the major parties. The Free Soil party of the pre-Civil War era raised the issue of abolition. The socialist parties of the early nineteenth century eventually lead to legislation that incorporated much of their platform into the New Deal.

Third parties do have an important role, but it isn’t likely that a three-party system is going to develop, nor is it desirable. Imagine if the United States had a strong third party, and it becomes clear that deadlocked elections going to the House could become a regular event. It would undermine faith in the system.

There is little chance of any of that happening. First, a third party has to run through a gauntlet of unfair election laws. Second, a third party isn’t going to rise to prominence unless it can field a Presidential candidate, but it would have very little chance to elect a President without getting 40% or more of the popular vote. That is not likely because it is unlikely that the two major parties are going to fall under 30% of the vote. Third, if the vote went to the House to break the deadlock,  there is also very little chance the third party candidate could be elected. Members of the House of Representatives are most likely to vote for their party’s candidate. Unless the third party sweeps the Congressional races, the votes aren’t going to be there in the House to elect a third party candidate.

Despite these barriers, the American electorate is increasingly uneasy with the current two major parties. That is why more people are registered as independents than members of any political party. They want an alternative, but the American political system is not geared towards addressing that alternative unless it is reworked dramatically. As party membership decreases and no alternatives come to the forefront because of repressive laws, the pressure on the system from disenchanted voters is going to grow.

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