Americans are really sick of both major parties—but here’s why third parties don’t stand a chance

If the 2014 midterms demonstrated anything, it’s that Americans are thoroughly sick of the all-too-familiar options presented to us by the Democrats—and the Republicans.

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Yes, the GOP swept to victory in the Senate, but the more important story is that they did so with just 36.6 percent of eligible voters casting a ballot. (Some estimates put that number as low as 33.9 percent, with just 13 percent of voters being younger than 30. And in a poll from earlier this year, only 21 percent of Americans said the federal government “has the consent of the governed.”)

So this much is clear: Two out of three Americans are incredibly unenthusiastic about both major parties. We’re more than ready for a change.

But is that even possible?

Many suggest that if you don’t like the major parties, you should vote for a third party candidate instead. This protest vote is not expected to actually get a third party candidate elected, of course—for a third party, getting 1 percent of the vote is generally heralded as a strong showing—but it theoretically can express dissatisfaction with the available viable candidates more clearly than simply skipping the ballot box. In the best of worlds, a third party candidate might get 5 or 10 percent support and leverage it to pressure his viable competitors into addressing an issue they might otherwise ignore.

In short, voting third party usually doesn’t accomplish much.

Yes, there are a few exceptions. Fabulously wealthy businessman Ross Perot managed to briefly lead the polls as an independent presidential candidate in 1992. He ultimately received almost 19 percent of the popular vote—the most any third party candidate for president had gotten since Teddy Roosevelt—but he did so spending millions of his own dollars. He also carried no states, and thus received no Electoral College votes. Perot ran again in 1996 and got less than half of the support he’d received in his first run.

A Ross Perot-style candidacy obviously isn’t an option for most would-be third party candidates. It’s just too expensive. There are candidates who achieve similar success without that kind of money, but it’s even rarer. Thus most third party candidates—even the comparatively well-funded ones—struggle to be competitive at all.

At first glance, this makes no sense. If Americans are so sick of the Democrats and Republicans, why haven’t we developed a truly multi-party system?

A closer look, however, reveals it actually makes perfect sense, because our electoral system is designed in a way that makes successful third parties essentially impossible. While many of the Founding Fathers opposed and feared the development of a two-party system, the government they made produces exactly that.

Because our elections generally follow the “winner takes all” method, third parties inevitably struggle to get the funding and name recognition to get into office. The hurdle is simply too high.

This is most obvious in presidential elections, where it’s extremely difficult for third parties to compete because they must run a national campaign in which they collect the majority of the vote on a statewide level. Getting one third of the vote in every state, for instance—a much better showing than even Perot managed—would still mean zero Electoral College votes (well, they could maybe pick up a couple from Maine or Nebraska).

Meanwhile, ballot access laws give third parties trouble to get on the ballot itself, let alone win elections; and third party candidates find an additional roadblock in the presidential debates. That’s because the debates are run by the Commission on Presidential Debates, which in turn is run by the national committees of the Democratic and Republican Parties.

As you might imagine, the RNC and DNC have no motivation for letting potential spoilers into the national spotlight, so third party and independent candidates are almost always excluded. (They also meet and agree on the debate questions beforehand so neither candidate is caught off guard.) It’s exactly as scammy as it sounds—and this barrier just piles on top of all the legal obstacles third party candidates already must overcome.

And that’s why America will never have (and has never had) more than two viable, national parties absent a massive structural upheaval of our current legal and political system.

What might that upheaval look like? Well, it would require multiple constitutional amendments, and it would probably mean switching to some sort of proportional representation. These systems lower the hurdle for getting into office and allow truly multi-party systems to flourish. I kind of like party list voting and ranked voting—but there are so many options which we could consider.

Then, in Congress, we’d see voting coalitions shifting by issue; the Republicans, Libertarians, and Constitutionalists might pair up for economic votes, while Libertarians, Constitutionalists, Greens, and Socialists would oppose Republicans and Democrats when they wanted to start yet another undeclared, overpriced war.

Unfortunately, constitutional amendments aren’t exactly easy to get passed, which means that we’re probably stuck with two big parties for the foreseeable future. The good news, however, is that we don’t have to be stuck with the two parties as we know them now. Both have undergone significant realignment of their values in the years they’ve been around, and they can do it again.

If the 2014 midterms demonstrated anything, it’s that a new realignment needs to happen. And it needs to happen fast.

What do you think?

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