By Gregory Schacht
It is not a coincidence that in the many years since this country’s establishment of democracy, no more than two parties have ruled most elections and the senate. Although a record 43% of Americans are classified as political independents and despite the present preference of an emergent third party among voters, the Libertarians and Green Party members struggle to find support nationally.
The closest a third party has ever come to presidency was Theodore Roosevelt’s 1912 Progressive party campaign where he won 27.5% of the vote, and even that was after a major split in the Republican party. This drought of third party popularity can be attributed to several things, most notably the structure of the nation’s voting system and the simple concept of Duverger’s law.
The electoral college, created to formally elect presidents, requires an absolute majority of at least 270 votes, and this requirement in itself is the main thing that makes third parties unviable. Winner-take-all systems which 48 of the 50 states use for the electoral college make it practically impossible for a third party to emerge with any chance of gaining considerable electoral votes.
As the populace realizes this statistical improbability of outside party success, third party supporters coalesce around the largest party with whom they identify the most. They form an allegiance with this party although they identify more with the smaller party, in order to defeat the largest party of their ideological opponents. Those who dare go against this process will often be blamed for lost elections by splitting votes and guaranteeing success of the major opposing party, shaming anyone who wishes to vote for the party they align with most. This almost inevitable political process is known as Duverger’s law, often occurring in plurality-based voting systems like the United State’s first past the post voting.
Differences in voting processes explain why, for example, the United Kingdom normally has three or more parties that have a fair chance at elections while the US does not. With the winner-take-all system , proportionality is tossed aside no matter how close the plurality of the vote was. In the UK, though it may not be direct proportionality, more than three parties get a certain amount of seats in the House of Commons. In the US, anything other than a Democrat or a Republican is rarely seen and currently only two independents remain in the Senate, with none at all in the House of Representatives. Unfortunately, both systems end up being troubled by some form of gerrymandering, but more so in the US.
Restrictions other than absolute majority in the electoral college put a severe damper on third party efforts. The amount of private money and funding in forms of Super PACs and other organizations leaves other parties little to work with in terms of competition. Parties who do not have significant funding compared to the standard billion dollar benchmark of the large parties are surpassed immensely in efforts of marketing, a requirement to spread the message and even existence of the party. Private funding also means the GOP and Democratic Party receive an easy pass when it comes to the eligibility requirements of raising at least $5,000 in 20 states while third parties struggle to meet it.
Furthermore, the Democrats and Republicans can even be seen working together to disenfranchise smaller parties. One example of this is the Committee of Presidential Debates that determines who is allowed on the highly-watched general election debate stage. New rules and regulations are often imposed to shut out smaller parties instead of allowing the nominees from the third and fourth largest parties to debate, effectively creating a monopoly on these debates.
The unfortunate truths of the current political process leaves most Americans longing for more choices of candidates and hoping for election reform. One voting process that may prove to be a more inclusive solution is instant run-off. Instant run-off elections constitute candidate ranking by the voter. The voter would list over three candidates starting with the most preferred. If a voter’s first pick candidate received the least votes, their vote would then be given to their second pick. With this process, though it is not flawless, no blame could be placed on a voter of a third party for splitting votes.
Sadly, no perfect process exists and all currently used processes throughout the world have several flaws. Despite this, any changes in America’s election process will be welcome as American voters become increasingly discontent with the blatant bias for a two-party system.