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Why Third Parties Can’t Rise in the U.S.

We’ve been talking in class about how there is no perfect voting system that convert individual preferences into a community-wide ranking. Naturally, one might start to think about the voting system present in the United States, and how that has impacts on our representation and preferences. Specifically, how the voting system we have in place right now does not allow for the rise of third parties. We’re at a time in our political history where people want more choices for who they elect to office (61% of the American population according to Gallop in 2013). Even in this most recent election season, candidates Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party and Jill Stein of the Green Party failed to gain much traction despite third party candidates being more prominent in this election than in 2014.


One major reason why this is the case is because voters feel that voting for a third party throws away their vote. For example, if you’re socially liberal but fiscally conservative, you might vote for a Libertarian candidate. But if you would prefer a Democrat candidate over a Republican one, then you run the risk of the candidate you would not prefer winning. In other words, you’ll be harming your 2nd preference candidate because you’re only able to vote for 1 person. And this isn’t just a hypothetical, however. In 2000, Al Gore lost Florida to George Bush by only 537 votes. Many argued that had Ralph Nader not run his own candidacy on the Green Party, Al Gore would have picked up Florida and hence the Presidency. Such a situation is bound to result again the way current voting works, since even if you would rather have a third party candidate over a Republican or Democrat, you’ll be not contributing a vote to your 2nd preferred candidate that could win instead. In the 1992 Presidential Election, Clinton received 44 million votes to George H.W. Bush’s 39 million votes and Ross Perot’s 22 million votes. Although you can never be sure, who knows if George H. W. Bush would have won had Perot not ran? There’s no way to tell since our voting system doesn’t reflect preferences other than your first choice.

Another reason is the way voting has been modernized. Minority parties were able to rise to prominence in the 19th century, namely the rise of the Republican Party with the election of Abraham Lincoln. But back then, there weren’t such legal barriers as there are today. Candidates didn’t need to petition to be on a ballot (Evan McMullin who ran as an Independent in the 2016 election for example was only able to get on the ballot in 11 states due to time) and they could even nominate candidates already nominated by another party. This is important because this provides legitimacy to a third party (since you’re nominating candidates of more established parties but also promoting your own to some extent).



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November 2018