Third party voting: Impractical or Incredible?

Siobhan Mulligan, Campus Carrier Features Editor

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  Graphic by Leo Narrison | CAMPUS CARRIER

As Nov. 8 grows nearer, it can be easy to get caught up in the political fervor surrounding the general elections, or to feel sick of the ever-present political Facebook posts, sidewalk chalk and celebrity endorsements. While many of these messages deal with the candidates of the Democratic and Republican parties, dissatisfaction with the two major parties have led third-party voters to have a significant presence in this election. 

A Gallup poll released on Sept. 30 of this year showed that 57% of Americans believe that a third major political party is needed, up from 46% in 2012. With the greater awareness of third-party candidates like Gary Johnson, Jill Stein and Evan McMullin has come a discussion of the roles third parties play in American politics today and in past elections, and whether or not third-party voters can truly have an effect on this year’s election.

Looking for a voice

Michael Bailey, associate professor of government, said that there are three major reasons voters have been turning towards third parties in these elections. One reason is the candidates themselves. Democratic party presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and Republican party presidential candidate Donald Trump have historically high disapproval ratings, and they both underwent highly confrontational, divisive primary campaigns that may have hindered their ability to reach out to voters in their parties who feel alienated.

Some people are dissatisfied with the major parties entirely. In most elections, Bailey said, political candidates must appeal to the less moderate members of their party in order to win the primaries, then return to the center during the general election to appeal to voters across the board. 

This year, however, many Congressional seats up for reelection are in states where the incumbent party is likely to win the election, even if the exact Congressman changes. As such, there is less pressure to appeal to voters from both parties, and the main obstacle to a candidate’s success is winning the primary election. The race to win the primaries left moderates feeling unrepresented compared to the more active, extreme groups that the candidates courted instead.

“There is a genuine expectation of true fidelity to these ideological extremes,” Bailey said. “And there is a sense that if you aren’t doing that, that shows that you’re compromising with the Devil, you’re willing to bargain with the Devil and you might be attracted to another candidate.”

Finally, Bailey says that societal and economic changes may lead some voters to feel frustrated with the options available to them. Decreasing incomes can lead people to question recent political movements like globalization, and they may feel bitter and left out of the political process when their previously powerful social positions – whether afforded by race, gender or other factors – are threatened.

Sophomore Mahmood Abdellatif, head of the Politics and Law Society, agreed that people were attracted to third-party candidates for reasons other than simply disliking Clinton and Trump.

“I think it’s probably just a dissatisfaction with the current political system,” he said. “It’s kind of envisioned by what Donald Trump is trying to accomplish – you know, someone outside of the political elite. You have Gary Johnson, you have Jill Stein, you have (Evan) McMullin – all candidates who are attractive to students and different groups because they’re not that Washington elite.”

However, the attraction of third-party candidates is not a recent phenomenon. In 1992, businessman Ross Perot ran for presidential office as an Independent against Bill Clinton and George H. W. Bush, earning 19% of the popular vote – more than any independent candidate since Theodore Roosevelt ran with the Progressive Party in 1912. Jonathan Atkins, professor of history, said that raising enough support for a third party to win the presidency has been a challenge historically. The only times when third parties have been viable opposition to the two major parties have been when the two major parties ignore an important issue for many voters, and a third party steps in to fill the gap.

“The last time that happened was in the 1850s, when the Republican Party managed to pretty much replace the Whig Party,” said Atkins. “And the issue then was the issue of slavery’s expansion and the future of slavery in the United States.”

For this year’s elections, he said, there may not be an issue sufficiently large enough to unify voters behind a single third party, despite people’s problems with the two major parties.

A road full of challenges

People interested in voting third party anyway may be concerned about what effect their candidate may have, when some consider a vote for a third-party candidate a wasted vote. In the end, perhaps it depends on the effect one wants one’s vote to have. Bailey noted that although the chance of any one vote determining the election is slim, voter support in the general election may lead to the third party being able to participate in the next presidential primaries.

 Third parties must traditionally petition to be put on the ballot, and their request may only be fulfilled if they have between 1 and 5% of the vote, depending on the state. To participate in the televised debates, third-party candidates must have at least 15% support in select national polls. While third parties may have more of a chance of winning state elections, Bailey added that it can be difficult for them to gain much traction in Congress compared to Democrats or Republicans.

Abdellatif recommended that people interested in third-party involvement might want to get involved in ways other than simply voting. Canvassing door-to-door is a common way to raise awareness for candidates, and reaching out to party administration may yield opportunities to raise support for the party before election season, although third party headquarters may be farther away than those of the major parties. Ultimately, a third party candidate’s success could be defined in many ways.

“Say you vote for a third-party candidate like Jill Stein or Gary Johnson and they don’t become elected,” he said. “It’s not necessarily a defeat, in a sense, that he wasn’t elected.” 

If people come together behind a third-party candidate strongly enough to defy expectations of voting for a Democrat or a Republican, some could consider that success enough.

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