Wolfe: Third-party tickets not viable in 2020 due to political system

Michael Wolfe, Op-Ed Contributor

On Aug. 1, U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R- Tenn.) and U.S. Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) announced hearings, hoping to manufacture bipartisan legislation that could stabilize the Affordable Care Act. But then, partisanship stuck its petulant head in: The White House and Republican leadership backed the Graham-Cassidy healthcare bill, a radical policy change that they attempted to rush through Congress. Weeks later, Graham-Cassidy also fell through.

In September, a Gallup poll uncovered two astounding statistics: just 16 percent of us approve of Congress today and 60 percent of us have expressed desire for greater third-party representation. The bottom line: we aren’t happy with our government. However, while a third party seems appealing in principle, it cannot succeed in our current political climate.

U.S. partisanship is the highest it has been in decades. Pew Research found that 50 percent of Republicans and 46 percent of Democrats find discussing politics with opposing party members to be “stressful and frustrating.” This sense of enmity is causing political gridlock.

While some believe President Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton’s 2016 bout have created momentum for a third-party challenge in 2020, I wouldn’t bet on it. No independent has won an electoral college vote in 58 years. Our modern political process creates major barriers for third-party candidates.

Even before third-party candidates worry about votes, they will have to battle their way onto ballots. Unlike “duopoly” party candidates, others must fight ballot access restrictions in every state. States like Texas impose absurdly early registration deadlines for third-party candidates; in 2016, the deadline occurred before the major party primaries had finished. These restrictions create major problems for third-party candidates. Last year, for instance, the Green Party could only secure ballot positions in 21 states.

Further, media obstruction has intensified over time. Political debate restrictions have blocked third-party candidates from the public eye. The Commission on Presidential Debates, which is responsible for organizing televised presidential debates, is a private, major party-run organization. This allows prominent Democrats and Republicans to exclude third-party candidates by setting unrealistic criteria — including requiring candidates to have 15 percent average support in major national polls to be on a debate. In 1992, the CPD succumbed to pressure and agreed to feature independent candidate Ross Perot in debates; he shot up from eight percent polling to 19 percent of the popular vote largely due to this exposure. This taught the CPD the threat of a third party. Since then, rules have been aggressively tightened. In 2012, for example, Green Party candidate Jill Stein wasn’t allowed to debate because her poll numbers didn’t meet the CPD’s criteria. She was then arrested for standing on the debate site property in protest.

To give third-party candidates a fighting chance, we must reform our system. We may need to look to the past for solutions. Prior to 1930, ballot access laws were lenient: presidential candidates only needed 50,000 signatures to appear on ballots for every state. Consequently, third parties were viable competitors. The Progressive Party placed second in the 1912 election, when former president Teddy Roosevelt finished with 27.4 percent of the vote. According to political analyst Richard Winger, this law was changed only to “thwart the Communist Party.”

We must also consider other countries’ systems. In Ireland, for example, voters rank their preferences of candidates. Through multiple vote-counting rounds, candidates who are eliminated have their votes dispersed across remaining competitors. This benefits third parties by encouraging voters to understand all candidates’ positions, and by increasing the viability of non-major party candidates. Since 2016, Maine, along with 11 U.S. cities, have pioneered the use of this system. Despite controversy, in an August vote this year, 52 percent of Maine citizens continued to support the new system.

Finally, we must no longer permit “duopoly” parties to control political media exposure. The CPD has faced lawsuits in almost every election cycle since its creation, according to The Hill. The U.S. District Court of Columbia in 2017 ruled that the CPD must reconsider its debate criteria. As citizens, it is our duty to work with organizations such as “Level the Playing Field” to continue pressuring the CPD to act. If not for reforming its criteria altogether, the CPD should cut its debate threshold in half so legitimate third-party candidates can communicate their ideas. Had this threshold previously existed, Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson would have made the cut in 2016. Further, Ross Perot would have seen the debate stage in 1996.

Following the third failed Senate attempt to replace Obamacare during the Trump administration, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) addressed the Senate, declaring: “We’re getting nothing done my friends.” Looking ahead to future elections, it is time for change. Voting for third parties does not have to be a wasted vote. In order to defeat partisan politics, we must stand up for alternative perspectives.

Michael Wolfe is a Weinberg freshman. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.