We hear it again and again in the news: voters are unhappy with Democrats and Republicans, approval of both major parties is in the dumps and there’s a general dislike for the status quo. So this year, more than any other, I want to give voters the low-down on why the status quo is going to stay the same. Sadly, whether you like it or not. It’s a problem that we’ve only recently become aware of with some regularity thanks to the decentralization of the Internet: the system is rigged this way.
You see, the truth is that even as more and more independent candidates are being fielded for office each year, the number of them actually being elected has remained relatively flat (that’s not to say it never happens, but that it’s just so rare that it’s relatively unnoticeable). I’ve decided it’s in everyone’s political best interests to identify and break down these walls that have been erected by both incumbents and an apathetic media for third parties in this country. Here’s my rough take on what these are (in order of apparent priority):
- Restrictive ballot access laws
If a major party candidate can keep rivals off the ballot, they can then ignore those voter’s concerns without fear of losing (especially if their major party rival does the same). Ignoring contrarian viewpoints has traditionally been a cornerstone of repressive government. Fair and equal ballot access reform should be a priority for all third parties and anyone interested in true political reform. Third parties largely need to move on from this issue if their only contention is that they aren’t recognized as a party, but their candidates have the same signature requirements as major parties.
- Lackluster media coverage
Traditionally, third party candidates have to sell their ideas much harder than their major party rivals because media organizations typically don’t find anything newsworthy about them (unless they are beating the voter disaffection drum and pretending to care). Sadly, this directly translates into lost votes since an uninformed voter will not vote for a candidate they have heard little or nothing about. Whether this is intentional slighting on the part of some media outlets or just laziness in covering politics is debatable. The most-covered independent campaigns are typically ones that field either a star/celebrity candidate (Kinky Friedman anyone?) or use novel approaches (read: publicity stunts) to force their way into the public eye.
- Fundraising and volunteers
This deserves to go after the media coverage, because while a campaign is usually small when it’s starting, the coverage of the campaign is what drives informed voters to begin financially supporting and volunteering for a campaign. Once the media coverage is triggered, a campaign can typically sustain it’s momentum through increased news generation, campaign events and fundraisers.
- Inclusive polling
Many pollsters will often lump all third parties into “other” categories or not include them at all. Unfortunately, without the aforementioned media coverage, when they are included they often fall into the 2% margins which can harm campaigns even more than not being included. One way that third parties can attack this issue is by openly criticizing the pollsters who are not inclusive and paying for their own polls to publicize themselves further. Another method is to sue state-funded university pollsters and take the case to a federal level.
- Debating major candidates
The bar has been set excruciatingly high for third parties, with organizations like the League of Women’s voters demanding 10-15% polling. This will never happen until the conditions above are met. Presidential candidates while trying to serve papers to cease the debates in 2004, but in reality it was little more than a variation of the publicity stunt angle, which paid off poorly for them to actually be in the debate, though it did help their publicity substantially (at least on the Internet).
- Election day (voting methods)
This is the last hurdle for third parties, and is often the most difficult. While many argue for a reform to Condorcet or IRV (Instant Runoff Voting), the reality is that those are both methods that are meant to short-circuit all the problems above. While logically we should be able to vote for candidates in order of ranked preference, it shouldn’t matter unless the race is a three-way extremely tight one. Personally, I would like to see this stay the last priority for third parties, since it’s not bound to change the outcome if their candidates remain unknown because of the walls stated before.
I won’t bore you with a lot of speculation on how these can all be miraculously fixed overnight, because the truth is we’re probably looking at a tough decade of electoral reform in fifty different wars for us to even have just a slim super-minority of candidates in federal office. I don’t look at our battles from an ideological presentation standpoint, because I truly don’t think that what’s been holding third parties back (Libertarian especially) is bad reception of the platform, or the pledge, or whatever.
I’m sure some people are always going to look at third parties and sniff their noses at one or two issues, leaving reformers and purists to duke it out amongst each other because they think that’s why they keep losing races. But in reality, it’s not.
Update: Richard Winger of Ballot Access News sez:
The article is unfair to the League of Women Voters. In about half the states, the League has sponsored televised debates for Governor and US Senator and invited everyone on the November ballot. The 15% rule is from the Commission on Presidential Debates, not the League of Women Voters.
I have to disagree on factual grounds here. I’m not sure which states Winger has info on where the LWV invites every valid candidate, but back in 2004 in California they told U.S. Senate candidate Jim Gray to talk to the hand even after sponsoring his own poll through Rasmussen that got him 8% (the 3% MOE put him over their 10% entry barrier). Recently here in Ohio, gubernatorial candidate Bill Peirce recently got dissed because he needs to poll… drumroll please… 15%.
Update: Richard Winger writes back:
I only know about statewide offices. In 1994, Leagues invited at least some of the third party candidates for Governor and US Senator into their debates, in Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Idaho, Maine, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Dakota (those were gubernatorial debates); Delaware, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio, Virginia, Wyoming (those were US Senate debates), and US House-at-large, Montana and Vermont. When a state had two offices, I didn’t list the state twice.
It seems LWV requirements vary state by state. Plainly speaking, they should just invite everyone who’s on the ballot, otherwise it’s another unnecessary hurdle. They’ve actually raised their requirements in the past when pressured by Ds & Rs, so don’t act surprised if a third party sues them over their non-profit status requiring them to be non-partisan one day soon… and wins.
Update: Richard Shepard sent a link toat Tacoma, Washington’s paper — The News Tribune. There’s an interesting statistic he cites from Pew Research:
We have ample evidence the two-party system is not meeting Americans’ needs. Polls reveal a steady decline in voter participation, a lack of trust in government, and a desire for alternatives.
A Pew Research Center report, “In Search of Ideologues in America,” identifies four political philosophies of government. Roughly 33 percent of the public falls into the well-known “liberal” or “conservative” philosophical camps. Another 25 percent agrees with the lesser-known “libertarian” or “populist” philosophies even though they do not self-identify that way.
It seems out of the three biggest parties/ideologies, we’re all in the polling minority. Sobering, but it gives ammo to the argument that we need more choice on the ballot and that the media should be covering more than the two majors.