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September 03, 2008

Third-party Voting

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --


Quiet week. Gotta pack for a trip to the Northeast and Canada. Peck away on that book chapter.

Not much news. The Democrats nominated somebody or other for President last week and maybe the Republicans will do the same this week. Or next. Whatever.


I'm bored.

Oughtta stir things up around here. But that's what Michael's good at, not me.

Oh, hell. Why not? Wave a red cape at that bull. Give the ant hill a good kick.

Lotsa libertarians hereabouts, so why not talk about third parties and voting for them versus voting for one of the bigs.

Lacking in imagination, I've never seriously considered voting for a third party candidate at any level above the local. To me, it's a case of damage control; if you vote for a third-party candidate instead of a guy you aren't too fond of, you increase the odds of winning for somebody whose politics you definitely don't like.

Others disagree. I already know some of their likely arguments, but won't steal any thunder.

It's a fact that no third party has advanced to top-tier status in this country in around 150 years. In the 20th century, there were maybe five halfway important outsider runs at the presidency, none of which captured more than a few states and none of which resulted in a new party that can be seriously considered to have endured. In chronological order, we have Teddy Roosevelt's 1912 Bull Moose Party, Eugene Debbs' 1904-1920 presidential runs under the Socialist banner, Strom Thurmond's Dixiecrat effort of 1948, George Wallace's American Independent Party of 1968 and Ross Perot's 1992 run.

It can be argued that TR's campaign prevented Taft from winning a second term and that Perot did the same to the elder George Bush. But the Dixiecrats did not prevent Truman from prevailing.

It has been said that minor parties have the effect of feeding ideas to major parties. I haven't studied this matter and won't pass judgment on that claim. What I do know is that major parties can be transformed internally due to generational change -- the recruitment of new adherents while older activists pass from the scene. For example, the Republican party was transformed over the 40 years between 1940 and 1980 from being isolationist to internationalist-interventionist while the Democratic party was going the opposite direction. Note that other aspects of the two parties changed less.

So here we go. Is it worth voting for a third party in presidential elections? If so, why?



posted by Donald at September 3, 2008


No. Third parties are created and controlled from the top to herd the unhappy masses into false solutions which do nothing and go nowhere.

You can tell that third parties are created for this purpose because no significant funding from the real powers-that-be ever flows their way. People mistakenly think that the dems and repubs are just so successful at enticing the big money, but its really the tail that wags this dog. Its the big money that's chosen the two-party system and sustains it to keep their power intact.

Any change starts with the individual. All change from the top (including the phony libertarian and green "parties") is just another form of the usual control.

Posted by: BIOH on September 3, 2008 6:00 PM

We need and should demand of our government “automatic runoff” balloting. This would eliminate the “spoiler” argument and is our best shot at prying the system out of the hands of the entrenched interests and their Good Cop / Bad Cop parties. I want someone voting for a Libertarian, Green, socialist or whatever party candidate to do so without the fear that if their party falls short of winning (highly likely) they won’t feel votes for their candidate had the effect of giving an edge to the major party candidate they least want to see elected. The cynic in me also says there should always be a “none of the above” of “no confidence”line on every ballot to encourage the dissatisfied and disaffected to use their vote rather than staying home in disgust.

Posted by: Chris White on September 3, 2008 9:17 PM

Worth - as a declaration of independence. If you have a misfortune to live in a state where your voting will not change the general outcome.

Posted by: Tatyana on September 3, 2008 10:18 PM

No, I think not.

My husband preaches for a legitimate third party, so this is a discussion to which I have given some prior thought...

Oh, I've tried the third party concept on for size, but it seems to me it's just a waste of a vote.

Instead I'd say it's better to pick one of the two major parties, get involved and then start making some waves.

The major parties are where the money is, and that's what matters in the end.

One person CAN make a difference, but one person with persuasive skills who knows how to sway the money -- now that's what I'd advocate!

Posted by: Anne Holmes on September 3, 2008 11:38 PM

you're part of the problem.

Posted by: t. j. on September 4, 2008 12:59 AM

Third parties are good for some entertaining bomb throwing, but I haven't heard one yet come up with a sustainable strategy for governing. Whether you're talking Libertarian minimalism or Green Party activism, they all seem equally half-baked.

Plus, the Republican radicalism of the last 8 years has demolished the Naderesque notion that the two major parties are essentially the same.

Posted by: Steve on September 4, 2008 1:39 AM

I've always liked the idea of proportional representation. Apparently so long as parties are required to get a minimum of 4 or 5 percent of the vote it won't result in chaos. If we're stuck with two parties, then I root for Chris's "None of the Above" option, plus (maybe) a requirement that the winner of any election has to take at least 50% of the total vote. If no one takes 50%, then the parties have to submit new candidates and do it all over again.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 4, 2008 3:18 AM

Since Canada was mentioned, thought I might give my $0.02 (Cdn or U.S.); here, third parties have been able to do more than siphon votes away from the two main ones; sometimes they have held the balance of power, and been able to force one of the parties to accept part of their agenda as their price for being in a coalition government, or propping up a minority government; other times, they have acted as a 'wild card', sometimes voting with the government, sometimes with the Opposition; still on other occasions, their presence has forced one or more of the other parties to adopt popular elements of their platform, and claim them as their own. Of course, the American system is quite different, and it's probably never going to be the case that third parties can ever have any real clout there. But nevertheless, the Canadian example shows that it's possible, at least in theory.

Posted by: Will S. on September 4, 2008 7:54 AM

The notion of a "quorum" requirement is certainly attractive, let's say 80% of eligible voters must participate for an election to be certified as valid. While Nader may have exaggerated the similarities between the two major parties, his basic point remains valid. The Dems & Repubs serve the interests of the status quo. Money talks, the two parties walk. Maybe given industries (defense contractors, insurance, financial sector)favor one party more than they do the other, but the end result remains we have the best government private capital can buy.

Posted by: Chris White on September 4, 2008 8:02 AM

i'm not not a nader supporter but i don't think he's exaggerated the similarities between the 2 parties. i honestly think if we'd elected john kerry in 2000 we'd be exactly where we are now as far as iraq goes and obama is for illegal wiretaps and giving government funds to religous organizations like bush is. the "electable" democrats aren't that liberal and the "electable" republicans aren't that conservative. both are socialistic in my mind. i think the republican party abandoned small government conservativism/libertarianism when barry goldwater had his ass handed to him by lyndon johnson years ago and the party hasn't been the same ever since.

Posted by: t. j. on September 4, 2008 8:56 AM

Philosophical considerations aside, third party candidates have very little chance of success in major races and it's not due to popularity or ideology, but legality.

Wikipedia provides some insight to the problems:

But, there are others. For example, the two major parties receive significant funding from the federal government for their campaigns. In order to qualify for these funds, a candidate's party needed to have a significant showing in the previous election. Having a large warchest is not a guarantee of a win, but not having one is a pretty sure bet of a lose.

Those who live in NY (and six other states) will be surprised to learn that how they vote for candidates is not the same across the US. In NY, we have electoral fusion:

Which is why when you go to the polls, you see a candidates name across multiple party lines. Each party can endorse a candidate, regardless of their actual affiliation. So, the Conservative Party typically throws their lot behind the Republican candidate and that candidate appears on the 'pub line and Conservative line. Although they're starting to realize just as everyone else has known for ages that the "party of fiscal conservatism" is the really the "party of fiscal hypocrisy" what with their much higher spending and much bigger welfare programs (for the rich, of course. Wouldn't want any of that money going to folks who actually NEED it).

Sorry, tangent. My point being third parties are pretty much unheard of outside of the seven states that still have electoral fusion. Before moving to NY from PA, I'd only rarely seen a third party on the ballot, and was confused as hell the first time I stepped into a booth in NY.

In any case, until these laws are reformed, third party candidates are a nice thing to believe in, but their getting into office effectively defies the laws of physics. It just ain't possible. All that ends up happening is they draw votes away. In this election, a third candidate will pretty much guarantee a win for McBush as people are fed up with their country being torn apart and want SOMETHING different. Going third party will ensure that the different they'll get is a filthy rich, old white guy who hates America.

Posted by: Upstate Guy on September 4, 2008 9:04 AM

Upstate Guy and I seem to share similar views. I consider myself fortunate that Maine is relatively open to alternate parties. I can’t remember a gubernatorial election here when there were fewer than three “viable” candidates. Independent Angus King served a couple of terms as governor from 1995 to 2003 and Greens elected to various state and local offices are scattered around the state.

The problem with most alternate party attempts we’ve seen nationally in recent years, at least those that get any degree of media coverage, is that they tend to be personality cults with a fundable personality rather than actual reflections of an emerging party. Or else they’re too much built around a very small cluster of narrow issues like the “paleo-conservative” Constitution Party (no taxes, no abortions). Libertarians and Greens thus far seem to be the most viable and genuine alternate parties and should find common cause in opening up the election process. The large number of unenrolled independent voters should be heartening to emerging alternate parties.

The “automatic runoff” system avoids thorny issues of proportionate representation while insuring a more accurate reflection of the will of the voters. It also means that natural allies (Constitution Party with the right wing of the GOP) can reinforce each other rather turning them into blood feuding cousins in which the little guy will always get crushed.

Posted by: Chris White on September 4, 2008 1:02 PM

I argued here that the people who are contemplating voting for Bob Barr have already had an impact on the election far out of proportion to their numbers: one obvious reason for the Palin VP pick is to lure back voters who might bolt from the GOP in this way.

Posted by: Lester Hunt on September 4, 2008 3:27 PM

There should be no third party. There should be no first or second parties. There should be no campaigns for election. Public office should be like jury duty. No one wants to do it - but everyone has to take his turn and do the best job he can.

Posted by: Franco Bertucci on September 4, 2008 4:05 PM

As I have argued here, the people who are contemplating voting for Barr have already had a huge impact on this election: the Palin VP pick was motivated partly to prevent people from bolting from the GOP by going to them. On the other hand, if you vote for a major party that does not represent your views, you are rewarding them for taking you for granted. What's that going to get you?

Posted by: Lester Hunt on September 4, 2008 6:34 PM

Depending on the voter, of course, I think in certain instances it can be worthwhile for that voter to vote for a third party candidate. I've occasionally voted for third party candidates (e.g., I didn't vote for Reagan, and I didn't vote for Mondale; I didn't vote for Clinton, and I didn't vote for Dole), and I'm very likely to do something SIMILAR (but maybe even better?) this time around. (See more about this later in the comment.)

To explain why I feel this way, though, I think I should first mention what seems to me to be a generally acknowledged paradox regarding voting in general: a single voter never decides a major election but, on the other hand, voters in the aggregate always decide an election (if, of course, it isn't rigged).

So, I think it is "foolish" to say that someone who votes for a third party candidate is necessarily throwing away his or her vote. No matter who that voter votes for, his or her vote isn't going to really matter (in terms of deciding an election) anyway. So, in terms of DECIDING an election, actually, all votes are equally "foolish." (Here's a similar, but slightly different, thought regarding those who do vote for a candidate in one of the two major parties: have the people who voted for the loser in an election "thrown" their vote away just because their vote didn't actually decide the winner?)

So why vote then?

I love to vote. I have a perfect voting record. I've voted in every election that I've been eligible to vote in -- and that includes primaries, school board elections (that I've been aware of) and runoffs. (Actually when I was younger, I use to get funny looks from the voting clerks because they couldn't believe someone my age had voted so many times!) However, I think, voting is "really" only just a way to express an opinion -- to put one's two cents in. It just so happens that in this special opinion poll, though, the most frequently expressed opinion (which has little to do with my actual vote) winds up deciding the election. This is the paradox of voting -- a quirky sidelight, so to speak, of this particular opinion poll. However, the really important thing, so it seems to me, is the expressing an opinion part.

So it seems to me that in those instances where a voter is EQUALLY DISAFFECTED by the two major candidates, a voter is really "throwing away" his or her vote if he or she just blindly chooses one major candidate over the other -- or if the voter chooses not to vote at all. In instances of equal disaffection, it seems to me the most valuable thing one can do is 1) vote (to show that one's vote is there to be had) and 2) vote for the candidate that comes closest to the opinion one wants to express.

Now for the new wrinkle. Two years ago I worked as a very minor voting clerk for the local Manhattan Board of Elections. If I understood our training session correctly, I discovered that even in Manhattan (where we use voting machines) a voter always has the option of writing in a vote. (On the voting machines there is some kind of lever that allows a panel to slide back so that one can write in a name -- although the actual candidates who've been nominated are already installed on the face of voting panel.)

So this time around, if this option exists, I think I will write-in Hillary Clinton for president and Joe Lieberman for Vice-President. (I don't "hate" any of the major party candidates; but Obama (who seems like an OK guy) is much too liberal for my taste; and McCain [whom I respect and like] and Palin [whom I kind of like on a personal level] are, nevertheless, much too conservative for my taste.) By doing this I will be showing that I vote and my vote is there to be had and expressing the opinion that I would have been likely to vote for Hillary had she been a candidate (yes, she's too liberal, but not as off center in my opinion as Obama or McCain / Palin) and for McCain had he chosen Lieberman.

If I misunderstood, or if this option no longer exists, I'll probably vote Libertarian (my regular third party choice).

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on September 4, 2008 8:42 PM

The Electors of Minnesota have followed my instruction only once in the past eight Presidential contests.

On that occasion (I was much younger) I voted for a lesser evil, and was quite surprised that evil was sworn into office.

So throwing a vote away for a third, or second party, cause me no shame; I will do this again in November.

In the case of Minnesota Executive, it led to my choice being installed into office, rather than those who I had not wished for, on one occasion. So it can work in practice as well as theory on some level.

Posted by: Virgil K. Saari on September 5, 2008 5:57 PM

A few additions to your list:

1924: "Fighting Bob" La Follette's Progressive candidacy, which won WI and finished ahead of the Democrats in 11 other states (all in the W and NW).

1948: Henry Wallace's Progressive candidacy (stage-managed by Communists), which sucked a million votes from Truman. (It's been suggested that Thurmond's Dixiecrat campaign may have saved Truman, by negating the Wallaceite claim that Truman was a reactionary.)

1980: John Anderson's independent candidacy. A fiasco, but it drew 6.6% and sucked a lot of air out of Carter's re-election bid.

1996: Perot's second Reform candidacy; it drew 8.4%, which is more than Wallace and Thurmond combined in 1948.

As to third parties in general: an existing structure has a lot of inertia. It doesn't change without a lot of reason. Our current structure has been stable for 150 years. This is very unusual. Britain, Canada, Australia, India, Israel, Italy, and Mexico have all had major party realignments (excluding revolutions and such). Germany, Japan and I think France have not... (In their current instantiations of democracy.)

For a 3rd party to be successful in a Presidential election, some cause would have to arise that would generate not only enthusiasm but resources - especially money. It would take a very big special effort to overcome that inertia - much more than to sway the election between the parties. There are huge blocks of voters that are reflexive Republicans and Democrats. One party might collapse and shed a lot of voters, but the other probably does not, which makes it very hard for the 3rd party to beat them.

I don't see any point in voting 3rd party for President, except as a deliberate gesture (as I did in 1992).

Posted by: Rich Rostrom on September 5, 2008 9:41 PM

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