A great democracy offers citizens sharp political choices. That’s what gives political freedom meaning. With two-party control of America’s political system, political options and discourse are stifled. We badly need more visible third parties that can fully participate and reach the public with information about their platforms and candidates. In a nation that so worships competition it is hypocritical that there is so little political competition.
In truth, the Democratic-Republican partnership opposes competition. They have convinced Americans that votes for third party candidates are “wasted.” Yet the biggest wasted vote is for a Democrat or Republican that is almost certain to win or lose, and takes your vote for granted. This year, even in the face of enormous public dissatisfaction with the two major parties, and a widespread belief that both are hopelessly corrupted by big money from corporate and other special interests, too many voters sheepishly picked from column D or R, even for sure winners or losers.
In this remarkable year of attention to many hot issues, especially political corruption and the Iraq war, voter turnout was just over 40 percent, no better than the previous midterm election. One valid view of why 60 percent of eligible voters did not vote is that they saw little difference between the two major parties and, therefore, that their votes do not matter. It’s “they’re all a bunch of crooks and liars” belief, bolstered this year with so much evidence of crooks in congress and liars in the Bush administration. Where supporters of Republicans or Democrats see different positions on issues, cynical citizens see nothing but campaign propaganda and civic distraction through divisive issues. So they do not vote their conscience or for lesser-evil candidates. Most have too little information about third party candidates to vote for them.
The untold statistical story is that a minor party could achieve political victory if half of the huge block of nonvoters chose its candidates, because major party winners typically have just a little more than half of the smaller voting block.
The Democratic and Republican Parties take no chances. They have used their muscle to keep third party candidates out of public campaign venues, notably televised debates, and to create rules that make it difficult fort them to get on ballots. As Tom Knapp correctly observed: “Major party candidates are cowards. They don't want to take stands that might cost them votes, but they don't want to be publicly outed as the walking blobs of Silly Putty™ they are, either. So, they erect difficult ballot access barriers to keep third party candidates out altogether, and when that fails they collude with their fellow Silly Puttians to, as best possible, exclude their third party opponents from the public discussion.”
The two-party duopoly prefers lesser-evil voters, people considered as independents, moderates or swing voters that can be influenced by aggressive and generally misleading advertising to choose the least worse Republican or Democratic candidates. Nor do the two majors really want a large voter turnout across the entire spectrum of political views. They prefer to have well defined niche categories of voters that they can target.
Here is a wonderful perspective about third parties by Rick Gaber: “They give the otherwise ignored, used, abused, betrayed, disgusted, disappointed, frustrated, victimized, insulted, and/or outraged voter a chance to cast a vote without feeling dirty afterwards, a reason to go to the polls AT ALL in the first place, and maybe even to come out of the voting booth feeling GREAT!”
In contrast to lesser-evil voters -- third party voters proudly vote their conscience. They know that the odds are totally against their choices winning. Yet they do not stay home. They are true believers in American democracy. Their votes are strong messages. They are more strategic voters with long term hopefulness about political reform, as compared to tactical lesser-evil voters hoping against reality that when the two-party pendulum swings to the other side something really good happens.
The 2006 Elections
The 2006-midterm elections showed the importance of votes for third party candidates who keep fighting for a place in the American political system, despite being intentionally disadvantaged by very little money and media coverage.
Consider the Democratic majority in the Senate. Votes for third party candidates in three states were critical. Much media attention went to Democrat Jim Webb’s win in Virginia by a relatively small number of votes, less than 9,000. As always, the media drummed up business by creating visions of a tight race between the two major party candidates, and ignored the third party candidate Gail Parker of the Independent Grassroots Party. As an independent fiscal conservative she received over three times the number of votes that gave Webb the victory over Republican George Allen. If just over one-third of those conservative voters had voted for Allen, the Democrats would not have a Senate majority. As elsewhere, some conservative voters rebelled against the Republican Party.
The Montana senate race was also featured. Democrat Jim Tester won over Republican Conrad Burns with less than a 3,000-vote margin. The Libertarian Party candidate, Stan Jones, received over three times that margin. So, if about one-third of those voters had gone Republican, the Democrats would not have a Senate Majority. Generally, Libertarian candidates take votes away from Republicans, and certainly that was justified this year.
In Missouri, Democrat Claire McCaskill beat Republican Jim Talent with a margin of about 46,000 votes. Frank Gilmour from the Libertarian Party received more than that. He and Lydia Lewis from the Progressive Party of Missouri received some 66,000 votes. So, if two-thirds of those voters had gone Republican, the Democrats would not have a Senate majority.
Frank Gilmour said this about his candidacy: “For far too long, our votes have been taken for granted; we either vote for the lesser of the two evils or we do not vote at all. My candidacy offers you a choice other than the two main parties. I'm not on the extreme left or the extreme right. I live in the middle, and I believe that most of you feel the same way. Our politicians give us partisan bickering instead of legitimate debate. If you vote for me it will send a message to the two main parties that enough is enough!”
Democrats owe a lot to those third party candidates and voters in those three states. Republicans deserved what they got.
These three cases, as many other races in previous years, demonstrate that votes for third party candidates are not “wasted.” Nor should such candidates be falsely labeled as “spoilers.” The implication is that they intentionally want to toss the race to one of the major party candidates. In truth, third party candidates believe in their mission to raise things neglected by the major parties. They can attract people that would not otherwise vote. They add integrity to our democracy. If anything, their current underdog status provides a constant reminder of just how unfair the political playing field is. They are not the problem. Our status quo political system is the problem, because two-party rule has “spoiled” our democracy.
Libertarian candidate Garrett Michael Hayes smartly put down the spoiler accusation this way; "I'm in this to win. Whether or not that's a realistic goal, I don't care. his country was founded by people whose goals sounded unrealistic at first."
Though Democratic control of the House was a clearer victory, it should be noted that there were six races where votes for third party candidates exceeded the margin of victory. In five of the six, the Republican candidate won.
Looking at a larger scale, how many Americans voted for third party and independent candidates in the Senate and House races? In the House races almost 1.6 million Americans went outside the two-party choices, and in the Senate races the total was almost 1.3 million conscience voters. These numbers are typical of past elections. Even though a majority of Americans expressed dissatisfaction with both major parties in many opinion surveys this year, they did not vote at all, were very motivated to get rid of Republican control by voting for Democrats, or did not know enough about minor party candidates.
Of the 33 Senate races, 26 had third party and independent candidates, or nearly 79 percent, with Libertarian Party (the nation’s largest minor party) candidates in 16 states and Green Party candidates in 9 cases. In the 435 House races there were third party and independent candidates in 193 of them, or just over 44 percent. Libertarian Party candidates were in 112 races and Green Party candidates were in 37 races. Unsurprisingly, there was no winner.
Obscene Money Defeats Heartfelt Money
Shamefully, obscene amounts of money go to the two major parties, maintaining their grip on the system. Paltry amounts go to third party candidates, mostly small contributions from individuals and financing from candidates themselves. This makes it incredibly difficult for them to inform citizens about their positions and qualifications. Usually, for senate races, major party candidates spend millions, while third party candidates spend in the low thousands. In Montana, Jones spent less than $2,000 on his campaign, compared to $3.8 million spent by the winner Tester. In Virginia, Parker raised just $1,200 in donations and financed much of her campaign through an $18,472 personal loan, compared to over $12 million raised by the loser Allen. In California, Todd Chretien, a losing Green Party Senate candidate, raised $58,000.
Recall that nearly $3 billion were spent by the two major parties on the congressional races this year. In contrast, the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics found that the 74 federal third party candidates still in the running this election cycle raised a total of just $3.1 million, according to campaign finance data available Oct. 19. (This includes only those candidates who would be new to Congress and who have reported raising at least some money to the Federal Election Commission. It excludes pseudo-third party candidate Joe Lieberman who raised about $15 million.) That $3.1 million amounts to just one-tenth of one percent of what the major parties spent.
Those 74 candidates received 39 percent of their contributions from individuals, compared to less than one percent from PACs and 58 percent from their own pockets. Note that Federal rules require candidates to file detailed reports of their contributions and expenditures if their campaign raises or spends $5,000 or more, which many third party candidates do not exceed.
Michael Badnarik, a Libertarian House candidate in Texas noted: "In order to win an election, not only do I have to convince voters I'm the best candidate, I have to let them know I'm a candidate at all." He raised more than $393,000, the second-largest third party fundraiser remaining in the midterm elections. In first place was Bruce Guthrie, a candidate for the Washington Senate seat, with $1.2 million, mostly his own money. That leaves about $1.5 million for the other 72 candidates nationwide.
Into the Future
Despite the enormous challenges facing third-parties, there are two newer energetic efforts that merit attention. One is the Populist Party of America. Here is its general statement of purpose:
The Populist Party promotes, and strives for, Common Sense solutions; Democracy as a tool to reign in the power of the federal government and ensure a greater responsibility of all public servants to the People. Populism, as espoused by the Populist Party, is a federal system of government where the final check and balance on the power of the politicians is directly in the hands of the people; with the Constitution and Bill of Rights serving as legal boundaries to protect the rights and liberties of all citizens.
The other effort is the Centrist Party. Here is its mission statement:
To achieve common sense solutions that have at their heart, a tone of balance and fairness. To create a strong foundation for mainstream America that is not prone to undue influence from left/right arguments. To move away from character assassinations and toward solution oriented campaigns. To empower people, and the vote, with a strong position not confused by one-sided agendas, or special interests. To formulate policies and solutions that regard short, medium and long term considerations at all levels.
If more established third parties have not attracted you, for whatever reason, you may want to look into these newer efforts.
What is really needed by third parties is a shift away from all the usual issues that the majors talk about. Instead, what would resonate with the public is an emphasis on structural or systemic political and policy reforms to revitalize our democracy. This requires acknowledgement that our system is broken, has become a plutocracy, and no longer serves ordinary people. Something the majors can’t admit, because they broke it. Why fix a system that they control?
Also, some collaboration among third parties would be useful, such as working together at times to back a candidate to create a better chance of success. This year, for example, Kevin Zeese was listed in many places as a Green Party candidate for the Senate from Maryland. In fact, he also was backed by the Libertarian and Populist Parties and ran a “unity for change” campaign. He reportedly had only about $60,000 to compete against the intense multi-million dollar campaigns of his Democratic and Republican opponents, so his message never reached many people.
This is how Zeese summarized the merits of having the backing of three parties and showed how they were not mutually exclusive but complemented each other:
The Populist Party stands for economic fairness for working families and recognizes how the U.S. has rigged our tax laws, finance system and corporate welfare to help the wealthiest while shrinking the middle class and undermining those whose work makes our country great.
The Libertarian Party emphasizes the central value of liberty -- freedom -- which is under attack in the United States with laws like the Patriot Act, eminent domain and a government that intrudes into private life. We need to consider the question of liberty in every action the government takes because it is our basic freedoms that unleash the creativity, entrepreneurship and greatness of Americans.
The Green Party's ten key values are a common sense outline of where our country needs to go. These values include: grassroots democracy, social justice, ecological wisdom, non-violence, decentralization, community-based economics, feminism, diversity, responsibility and future focus.
What should the American public demand from the federal government? Besides a number of electoral reforms, the issue of money is critical. We need a federal Clean Money/Clean Elections program. It would provide competitive government financing of campaigns for candidates that voluntarily agree to take no other funds, except small contributions from individuals. This approach has been successfully used in several states. It not only opens up races to third party candidates. It helps remove the corrupting influence of big money from corporate and other special interests, because honest major party candidates can also participate.
Now, third-parties are fighting a losing battle to improve the quality of our democracy and government. For the good of our nation, they need our support. A little publicized nationwide poll this past April by Princeton Survey/Pew Research Center reported that 53 percent agreed that we should have a third major political party. What a worthy goal!
If the Democrats now in control of the Congress want to demonstrate their commitment to fighting political corruption and providing more incentives for Americans to vote, then Clean Money/Clean Elections should be aggressively pursued. Will they voluntarily loosen their grip on our political system? Or do they fear stronger competition?
The time is long overdue for Americans to stop voting for candidates that can win, and start voting for those that should win. What lesser-evil voting has produced is entrenched two-party evil. We can do better. If we open our political marketplace to more competition.
Joel S. Hirschhorn is author of the new book, Delusional Democracy: Fixing the Republic Without Overthrowing the Government.
Other Articles by Joel Hirschhorn