On Going Third Party — What makes it so difficult in the United States

In light of the fact that Sanders’ Democratic primary race seems just about over, I’ve seen a number of people — many very bright — talk about third parties in the last 24 hours. Some mention Dr. Jill Stein and the Green Party, and still others talk of forming a progressive third party with some sort of socialistic platform.

The sentiment behind these plans is noble. But I don’t think a lot of people realize just how difficult it would be to create a viable third party. This is due to the structure of the U.S. electoral system.

The United States uses a system called single-member plurality voting. For Congress, for example, the Democrats and Republicans compete over 435 districts spread throughout the United States. The winner in each district race gets the seat.

What this means in practice is that running a third party candidate siphons votes away from one party or the other — generally, the party to whom the third party candidate is most similar. Green candidates strip votes away from Democrats, Libertarian candidates strip votes away from the GOP, etc.

Other countries have ways of dealing with this problem. The US largely does not.

One alternative is ranked-choice voting. In this example, you want the Green candidate to win but if not you’d prefer the Democrat. So you’d go ahead and mark Jill Stein #1 and then Hillary Clinton #2. The end result of this would be if Jill Stein is blown out of the water, your vote instead goes toward Hillary Clinton.

Another alternative is proportional representation. This is quite common in Western Europe. In this setup, you typically vote for a party rather than a representative. The proportion of votes earned by each party would be used to determine the number of seats they get in Congress.

So in a hypothetical national election where Democrats earn 45% of votes, the GOP 44%, the Green Party 5% and Libertarians 6%, that is the fraction of Congressional seats each party would earn.

What does this mean?

Because we use single-member plurality voting, third parties in the US are structurally doomed to play spoiler. Period. The only way around this is if they somehow earn enough support to replace one of the two big parties.

The current system is largely a historical relic. The US was an early adopter of democracy, and so we tried this system — we obviously couldn’t know the benefits of a parliamentary setup, since those didn’t really exist.

The main flaw of our setup is that it fails to represent the diversity of views within the nation. Green voters might represent 5% of the population but in practice they’ll have 0% representation. This is a problem with the plurality-vote system, not the US per se. But it’s the system we’ve got.

Both the Republicans and Democrats benefit tremendously from this system, which is enshrined in our Constitution. It ensures they are forever the only two political parties of any importance barring a complete and total collapse of one of them. The US has seen a few major political parties disappear — RIP, Whigs — but it’s a comparatively rare event.

So, for structural reasons, effective political change in the US nearly has to come from within one of the two major parties. The only ways to change this basic fact would be to 1) amend the Constitution 2) if one of the major parties collapsed entirely, to be replaced by Your New Party or 3) civil war.

A lot of people are a bit bummed by the Trump/Clinton election we’re shaping up to have. I think it’s a wonderful idea to be more engaged politically and determine what we want our elected representatives to be doing. I think the Sanders campaign has made a lot of younger voters aware of how government could actually be solving genuine problems instead of fucking them over.

After all, a lot of what’s “politically impossible” isn’t. Free college, ending US wars abroad, Medicare for all… those are all possible, but they require significant political will to enact them. All would be less difficult than reforming the US political system to permit 3+ major parties. That is about as close to genuinely politically impossible as you can get.

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