This election could be the beginning of the end of the two-party system in America – thank goodness!
The 2016 Presidential election has produced a great deal of hand-wringing. This is not atypical. We could probably make a good case that the velocity and torque of the wringing has gotten higher in the past twenty years, especially since the advent of social media, but at this point, we’re used to the cacophony that surrounds us increasingly as we get closer to Election Day.
However, this is not a normal election. Among many other factors, it is a choice between two candidates with historic unfavorable ratings: as of this writing, Donald Trump’s RealClearPolitics unfavorability average 58%, and Hillary Clinton’s is a not-much-better 54.6%. Well, a rational voter might inquire,
Why not vote for one of the third-party candidates running?
I’m so glad you asked!
We spoke to Christina Greer, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Fordham University, about third-party voting and how it intersects with American democracy right now:
As a third party emerges, one of two things happens, either it gets subsumed by one of the more dominant parties, or it subsumes one of the two dominant parties. This goes back to the threat George Washington spoke about in his farewell address, in which the two-party system, as informal as it may be – there’s nothing in the Constitution about either of them – George Washington cautioned the nation against setting itself up in these two camps.
There was a good reason for this. The problem with the “two party system” arises not from any legal mandate, but from the way we conduct elections – the mechanism by which we vote, which is called “First Past the Post.” CGP Grey, an educational YouTuber, has a great video which explains the mechanism by which this voting system always causes election choices to strategically devolve to two.
This is not a great situation in which to conduct representative democracy. As Greer explained, “A Democrat from New York is not going to look like a Democrat from Texas, and in some ways a Democrat from Texas will be more conservative than a Republican from Manhattan. Our parties don’t really satisfy the needs of the voters [from different regions of the country]. If you think about Black Christian conservatives who don’t support a woman’s right to choose … often times they’re following a party [that doesn’t] really represent them.”
So we’ve learned the existing voting system enshrines two parties as the only political forces that can make a real impact, and that this is unsatisfactory as a democratic environment. What can we do about it?
Out of frustration, some vote for third party candidates. As we’ve learned, this is not a viable strategy.
But what about voting your conscience?
Unfortunately, this voting system doesn’t respect your conscience. First-Past-the-Post votes are not expressive. They don’t send a message to the two major parties that you are dissatisfied with their performance. They are instead highly limited actions inside a highly restrictive system, and when treated as though they are otherwise, they lose their power.
Can we change this?
Not yet, but perhaps soon. The biggest organization in the United States dedicated to voting reform is FairVote.org, which is trying to get Ranked Choice Voting (also known as Instant Runoff Voting) enshrined in more local elections, with a view towards state and federal elections eventually. This is a tough slog, as neither Democrats nor Republicans stand to gain from giving voters choices which more closely match their values. Grassroots pressure will be needed to effect change, and it isn’t going to happen before Election Day – but on November 9th, if you want more viable choices on your next ballot, start getting involved right away.