Third Parties?

by Jerry Frescia, February 28, 2006

Again and again progressives step forward to remind us of how bad the Democratic Party, or at least its leadership, is. The point of the lament is to encourage the support of third party candidates and parties.

This type of analysis is troubling, not because its analysis of the Democratic party is incorrect, but because the analysis leaves unexamined the institutional arrangement that makes a vibrant 3rd party at the federal level impossible. Never in American history has a third party captured the presidency. The Republican success in 1860 was anomalous in that one of the two major parties was simply torn apart by the divisions that issued in the Civil War soon after.

The possible election of Bernie Sanders as an Independent senator from Vermont is also anomalous. Vermont, in terms of population is essentially a congressional district. Sander's Independent Party is not a national or oppositional party. In fact, it may be in virtue of Sanders' distance from progressive third parties - the nominal independence from politics - that wins him broad support in a small state.

So here is my point: our political institutions were designed to give the appearance of public participation while preventing its substance. The two party system is part of that design. Encouraging third party participation makes sense only if it is one element in a campaign to establish democratic institutions in the US. With that in mind, let's take a look at the three central institutional features of our political system that insures at the federal level that only two parties will ever have a real chance of governing. They are the Electoral College, single-member districts and plurality elections.


Electoral College

On four occasions in US history, the candidate with the most popular votes did not win the presidency. This is a feature of a republican form of government, a government that is intended to "check" popular participation and "leveling" or democratic impulses. The mechanism by which this is done is the Electoral College. The Electoral College also insures that the number of parties seriously competing for the presidency will always be and only be two.

Each State's allotment of electors is equal to the number of House members to which it is entitled plus two Senators (with the District of Columbia getting three). But here is the key element for our purposes: in order to win the presidency, a candidate must win a majority of electors.

By requiring that a candidate win a majority, the Electoral College guarantees that third parties must do one of three things. Let's assume a third party arises and is incredibly strong (the Perot candidacy that for a time was pushing 20 percent nationally), but has no realistic chance of wining a majority of electors straight out. Its first choice is to press forward, win a significant percentage of electors and deny either of the two major parties a majority victory. In this case, the election would be decided by the House of Representatives, already dominated by the major parties. Option 1: third party looses everything.

The second option, again assuming a strong third party, is to coalesce with one of the major parties in order to get something. Arguably the most powerful progressive political party was the People's Party during the late 19th century. In 1896, they had anywhere from 25 to 45 percent strength in twenty-odd states. Clearly unable to win the presidency as a third party, they felt compelled to coalesce with the Democrats and saw their more radical labor and socialist elements purged in a losing effort. Well, there you are. Option 2 puts you back inside one of the major parties.

The third option arises when a third party is not that strong, say a Nadar candidacy of 2000. We know what happens there. A weak third party, by taking votes away from the party closest to it ideologically will, in effect, help elect the major party most unlike themselves. Option 3: help the other guys win.


Single-Member Districts

Single-member districts simply mean that in any given district, the winner takes all. That is, if the Republicans get 42 percent in a congressional district and the Democrats get 36 percent and the Greens get 22 percent, the district will still be represented by a single member, in this case the Republican. This is not terribly democratic as you can see. The majority of voters (Democrat and Green or 58 percent) garner zero representation. Third parties loose, everything.

Single member districts, of course, stand in contrast to proportional representation which permits third parties to gain a foothold in proportion to their strength. Prior to 1842, we should note, single member districts in the House of Representatives did not exist in Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey and Rhode Island. In these states, the entire congressional delegation was elected at large by means of what was called a general ticket. A return to the election of state delegations at large might lend itself nicely to proportional representation. In any case, we can see that the current arrangement is not carved in stone.

At the city level, proportional systems of representation have encouraged greater popular participation. In New York City from 1936 to 1947, proportional representation resulted in the participation of the American Labor Party, the Liberal Party, the Communist Party and the Fusion forces. In addition to a number of blacks, two Communists were elected to the city council. That did it. Business forces restored the two party system, the only true "democratic" form of party participation as they put it.


Plurality Elections

Plurality elections mean that the candidate with the most votes wins. Unless the third party candidate is about to out poll the Democrat or Republican, supporters of third parties get no representation. Zero. Moreover, with this in mind, we are often told that voting our conscience is tantamount to throwing our vote away or electing "the other guy." For example, if George Bush, Bill Clinton and Noam Chomsky were to run (and could) for governor of California, the odds are pretty good that Noam would come in third. And there would be a very intense debate over whether or not we should vote for Clinton or Noam. This is the curse of plurality elections.

However, there are numerous mayoral elections where "majority election" rules obtain. Majority elections (sometimes called the "double primary") require a second ballot if no candidate gets a majority in the first round. This scheme encourages third parties because you are encouraged to vote your conscience in the hope that your party might at least come in second, in which case there would be a second ballot or runoff between the top two vote getters. And if the progressive party didn't make it that far, then one could choose the lesser of two evils in the final round. Majority elections have resulted in many progressive candidate and third party victories at the local level.



There are many different ways of organizing elections throughout the world. The electoral system in the United States has been shaped to both reduce popular participation and advance business interests. The impulse to create third party oppositional politics is natural, positive, and will persist until space for oppositional politics is created. However, to assume that our system is democratic and that the creation of oppositional politics turns only on a matter of will as opposed to a reform of our institutions is to advocate moral victory and political failure.

None of our rights have been handed down; they have all been won through resistance. So let's call the bastards on their professed support for democracy. Dump the electoral college, push for proportional representation and adopt majority elections, already in practice around the country at the local level, for federal office. Third parties yes, but not without a corresponding demand for democratic elections here in the US of A.

Reforming the Electoral Process

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