Third party impact
Though candidates from outside the two major parties have not won a presidential race, they have had an effect in a few races over the last century. A few examples:
• 1912: Former President Theodore Roosevelt, running under the Progressive Party banner, placed second to Democrat Woodrow Wilson; incumbent Republican William Taft ran a sad third.
• 1948: South Carolina’s Strom Thurmond took 39 electoral votes across the Southern states as a Dixiecrat segregationist.
• 1968: Alabama’s George Wallace ran as an independent and earned 10 million popular votes and 46 electoral votes.
• 1992: Reform Party candidate Ross Perot earned 19 percent of the vote and could have helped cost incumbent President George W. Bush the race against Bill Clinton.
• 2000: Democrats had their own spoiler in Ralph Nader, the original Green nominee, who earned nearly 3 million votes and may have cut into Al Gore’s totals in a few key states.
In two weeks, the Republican Party will gather in Cleveland to officially nominate its presidential nominee for the November ballot. A week later in Philadelphia, the Democrats will do the same.
And many American voters will respond by rolling their eyes with a deep sigh of resignation.
It’s not subjective hyperbole to say the projected nominees of each party are two of the most unpopular choices in recent memory, even among their own faithful. Recent polls reveal a majority of voters hold a negative view of both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. The Wall Street Journal recently reported poll results showing 55 percent of voters with a negative view of Clinton and 60 percent for Trump, the highest such figures for any GOP or Democratic nominee since 1992. And 9 percent of respondents said they would vote for neither.
And those results came before last week’s conclusion from the FBI’s probe into Clinton’s use of a private email server while heading the state department. Though the Justice Department chose not to pursue criminal charges, to the disdain of many and contrary to what the law would proscribe, “extremely careless” judgment isn’t a strong endorsement for someone seeking to lead the free world. Meanwhile, her GOP opponent is a reality TV showman with no governing experience and no filter between his brain and his mouth, and Republicans are in a near revolt against him.
Some choice — one aptly labeled a “dumpster fire” by Nebraska Republican Sen. Ben Sasse. If ever there was a year in which many Americans might seek alternative candidates, this is it. However, third party hopefuls still are battling to get on the ballot in many states.
To this point, Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson is on the ballot in 34 states, according to the party’s website. But gaining access is a struggle. In Ohio, for instance, he will be listed as an independent since that state’s standard for party status required too many signatures to reasonably achieve. Other states have similarly high hurdles for ballot inclusion.
Nevertheless, Johnson is polling around 7 to 9 percent nationwide, which would be a record turnout for a Libertarian candidate. It’s worth noting he and running mate William Weld each are former governors, of New Mexico and Massachusetts, not wannabes running out of their basements, and each with more executive experience than the main party contenders.
The left-leaning Green Party, led by likely nominee Jill Stein, is on the ballot in 20 states, and faces the same obstacles. It recently won a court order in Georgia that reduced the number of signatures required for ballot inclusion from more than 50,000 to about 7,500 over a four-month period.
It’s understandable why states need a minimum requirement to keep any Tom, Dick or Harriett from being listed and creating a ballot that stretches to the floor. Candidates should have some established following, as measured by petition signatures or previous results.
But those limits should be reasonable, especially for established parties like the Libertarians and Greens, and give voters a wider menu to choose from. That desire is why our founders fought to escape the one-party rule of the British monarchy 240 years ago.
Yet ballot access is controlled by state leaders from the two main parties who are in no hurry to invite competition to a duopoly they have mostly held since the mid-19th century. The foxes are guarding that henhouse closely.
The fear of third parties drawing away votes is enough to inspire such roadblocks. Though some from other parties may be viewed as “fringe” candidates blitzing from the right and left flanks, they at least provide voters with alternatives. Our brand of representative democracy should encourage a full slate of choices from across the spectrum to let voters find who fits their views best.
Many worry a vote cast for a noncontender is “wasted,” and never counted in the electoral system. Yet democratic elections aren’t just about winning and losing but letting all voices be heard. If enough are cast for alternative candidates, their views can steer major party candidates and platforms in elections to come.
What’s more, if a third party candidate earns 5 percent of the total votes, that party qualifies for matching federal funds, which can help spread its message alongside the big-money machines of the two major parties in future campaigns.
Some day, when enough voters have had enough, the outlier candidates could have a serious impact, even challenge for victory, and force the major parties out of their insular cocoons to better appeal to a wider array of people and views.
Could this be that year? It’s still a long shot, but based on poll numbers, many voters unhappy with the donkey and elephant may tilt that way.
At the very least, states need to loosen their ballot restrictions and open the race to more competition. Democrats and Republicans in power should worry less about silencing a few mice trying to roar and focus on offering more inspiring candidates to compete against them.
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