To Save America Bring Back Third Parties

The Crowd tussles at a Trump Rally

Partisanship is clearly out of control. The fight over replacing Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia shows that the parties are locked in a death match where neither wants the other to accomplish anything. This makes sense when you see the poll that says that 36% of Republicans think that liberal policies “endanger the nation,” and 27% of Democrats feel the same way about conservatives.

Stopping Obama’s Supreme Court nominee counts as a win for Republicans. In this hyper-partisan atmosphere your opponent’s loss counts as your win.

But this only works if there are two parties. So maybe the solution to endless gridlock and white-hot partisan warfare is to have more parties. This is something the public clearly wants. Party identification is at record lows, and nearly two-thirds of voters say they’d like more options when they go to the polls.

Why don’t we have third parties? Or perhaps the better question is why don’t the third parties we have do better in elections?

There are two reasons, and Congress is responsible for both. The first is a 1929 law and the second is a 1968 law. The 1968 law is the main culprit so I’ll discuss it first.

From the nation’s founding up until 1968 each state could determine how to select its Congressional delegation. Some states elected their entire delegation in a state-wide “at-large” election. Other states had multi-seat Congressional Districts, with two or three Representatives from each district. (Many others had single seat districts like we have nationwide today.) Both systems gave voters a broad choice of candidates, and not the arbitrary and divisive “choice” we have today. This system also allowed a candidate to get elected with less than 50% of the vote, and in some cases with as little as 10% of the vote, which allowed candidates from third parties to win seats in Congress. This is the system that allowed the development of the Whigs, the Abolitionists, the Republicans, and the Progressives. The Whigs and Republicans became dominant parties, while Abolitionists and Progressives contributed important ideas to the national debate.

Congress enacted the Uniform Districts Act in 1967, which made every Congressional district a single seat district. Gone was slate voting, gone was multi-seat districts, and gone were third parties.

The other reason we had third parties in the past, but don’t today, is that Congressional districts used to be smaller. Today there are roughly 750,000 people in each Congressional district. There were 65 Representatives in the First Congress, with roughly 33,000 people in each district. At the beginning of the Civil War there were 183 Representatives and 93,000 people in each district. In 1911, when Congress was expanded to 435 members, each district had roughly 200,000 people. In 1929, when Congress made 435 permanent, there were roughly 250,000 people in each district. Today Congressional districts are three times as large, and therefore only a third as representative. It’s no wonder that the main complaint about Congressmen is that they’re “out of touch” with their districts.

Smaller congressional districts allowed minor parties to more easily meet votes, spread their message, and gain political traction. This combined with “at large” or “multi-seat” districts allowed third parties to get on ballots and win elections.

In order to get out of the current partisan death match we’ll have to make some significant structural changes to our political system. It’ll take more than a “civility oath” or a “no labels” movement. Perhaps it will mean repealing the 1929 law, allowing the number of Representatives to grow, reducing the size of Congressional districts, and making our Democracy more representative. Or maybe it will take the repeal of the 1968 law, which will give voters more choices at the polls. I think it will take both.