Making U.S. Politics Safe for Third Parties
How can the United States ensure that third parties don't act as spoilers?
August 16, 2011
In a July ABC News/Washington Post poll, nearly 80% of Americans described themselves as “angry” or “dissatisfied” with how Washington works. The last time this figure was as high, in 1992, Ross Perot captured 19% of the presidential popular vote running as an independent.
Predictably, the calls have grown louder for a centrist, non-ideological third party to effect the fiscal and political changes the United States desperately needs. Most prominently, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman recently hyped a well-funded centrist group called Americans Elect that will select its 2012 presidential nominee via an Internet convention and is seeking ballot access in all 50 states.
It is joined by a raft of groups with similar aspirations, including the Centrist Alliance. According to analysts who monitor third-party efforts, many of these organizations are bankrolled by wealthy individuals keen to break the Republican/Democrat duopoly.
The potential of third parties
Particularly at a time when the United States faces massive problems yet is paralyzed by gridlock, it is tempting to view a viable third party as a panacea. The prospect appears even more attractive considering that throughout history, third parties have benefited U.S. society enormously by spearheading causes that were later adopted by at least one of the major parties.
The abolition of slavery, the creation of the 40-hour workweek, Social Security and the elimination of child labor were all initially promoted by third parties. So too were the election of U.S. senators by direct popular vote and a graduated income tax. More recently, in his 1992 and 1996 presidential runs, Ross Perot focused the country’s attention on deficits and the national debt. By the end of Bill Clinton’s presidency, the federal government was running a budget surplus.
In their time, the agendas of most third parties were seen as far-fetched and extreme. Today, however, many of their ideas are so commonplace they are taken for granted.
The perils of third parties
On the other hand, due to the spoiler effect, third parties have the potential to irreparably harm the causes they and their followers hold dear — as most anybody who supported Ralph Nader in 2000 can tell you.
The Green Party candidate received more than 97,000 votes in Florida — while George W. Bush captured the state, and thus the presidency, by a mere 537 votes. Seeing as how the vast majority of his supporters would have preferred Al Gore to be president over George W. Bush, Nader effectively spoiled the election.
Similarly, it is not difficult to imagine a third-party candidacy by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg drawing most of its votes from Barack Obama in 2012, thereby delivering the presidency to the Republican nominee — much to the chagrin of most of Bloomberg’s hypothetical voters. Conversely, a third-party bid by South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint, a Tea Party favorite, could take votes from the Republican Party’s candidate and seal President Obama’s re-election.
Of course, it is possible that a third party would have no impact on the outcome by receiving zero electoral votes and siphoning equal numbers of votes from both major candidates, as did Ross Perot in 1992. Or perhaps two third parties, one on each end of the spectrum, would negate each other. Also possible is that a very well-funded, high-profile third-party candidate could become president outright.
However, by far the most likely scenario would be a replay of Ralph Nader’s 2000 run, which convincingly demonstrated that the U.S. political system is not safe for third parties. Thus, rather than fielding candidates in 2012, third-party efforts such as Americans Elect, and their wealthy backers, would do well to push for structural reforms to the U.S. political system that would eliminate the spoiler effect.
One promising reform
Arguably the most practical such reform would be to allocate each state’s electoral votes via instant runoff voting. According to FairVote.org, it is used to elect the parliaments of Australia and Papua New Guinea, the president of Ireland and the leaders of governments in cities such as London; Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota; and San Francisco and Oakland, California.
As for how instant runoff voting would work on the U.S. presidential level, imagine that in 2012, President Obama were to receive 35% of the popular vote in California, compared with 40% for Republican Rick Perry and 25% for independent Michael Bloomberg. Under the status quo, Perry would receive all of California’s 55 electoral votes, despite the fact that most voters in the decidedly blue state would prefer Obama over Perry.
With instant runoff voting, each voter would rank the candidates, with the typical Bloomberg voter ranking Bloomberg first, Obama second and Perry third. When the votes are tallied and no candidate receives a majority, the candidate with the fewest votes, in this example Bloomberg, would be eliminated from contention, and his votes would be distributed in an “instant runoff” to whom his supporters selected as their second choice. Assuming that a sizable majority of Bloomberg’s voters ranked Obama second, Obama would win the majority of the state’s popular vote and capture all of the state’s electoral votes.
If enacted in all 50 states, instant runoff voting would ensure that the outcome of the election reflects the will of the people. No longer would third parties effectively deny victory to the candidate with the most overall support.
The need for electoral reform
Instant runoff voting is but one possible reform that would allow third parties to safely field candidates — and permit voters to safely support them — without fear of acting as spoilers. This could do much to inject new ideas into the political discourse and pressure the two major parties to break the gridlock that is slowly destroying the country.
Unfortunately, the odds are precisely nil that well-funded groups like Americans Elect or prospective third-party candidates will drop their White House ambitions in favor of focusing on the nuts and bolts of the U.S. election system.
However, unless they lead the charge to make the U.S. political system safe for third parties, they risk setting back their causes by years, if not generations, by handing the presidency on a silver platter to candidates and parties they vehemently oppose.
The U.S. political system is not safe for third parties.
Particularly at a time when the United States faces massive problems yet is paralyzed by gridlock, it is tempting to view a viable third party as a panacea.
Third parties have the potential to irreparably harm the causes they and their followers hold dear.
A third-party candidacy by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg could draw most of its votes from Barack Obama in 2012, causing the Republican nominee to win.
Instant runoff voting is but one possible reform that would allow third parties to safely field candidates without fear of acting as spoilers.