Why Third Parties Matter in the U.S.

by Joseph Riccardelli

As humans, our choices are binary. There is absolutely no middle ground.

This is the truth, at least according to the current political system of the United States.

Since 1853, the President of the United States has belonged to either the Republican or the Democratic Party, and yet, it is increasingly apparent that such a system does not work.

The reason is a very multifaceted problem, but it all boils down to one issue: A two-party system cannot hope to fully represent the views and opinions of 308 million Americans.

Currently, the US elects its officials through a system called “First-Past the Post” (FPTP), in which the candidate with the most votes is given the seat, while the remaining candidates get nothing.

This is primarily helpful for presidential elections when there is only one seat to win: the presidency.

This type of election runs into problems, however, when you get to Congressional elections where the Senate and House of Representatives are composed of hundreds of elected officials.

Forgive the short history lesson, but it is always good to start with the basics before explaining what is wrong with the nuances.

The United States Congress is a bicameral legislative body, or simply put, a law-making institution composed of two distinct parts: the Senate and the House of Representatives.

The Senate is comprised of 100 Senators, two from each state. In the House, the number of representatives allotted to each state is proportional to the state’s population.

For instance, California has a population of more than 38 million people and has 53 representatives in the House. Compare this to Delaware, which has a population of 935,000 and only one representative.

This system was put in place primarily to get the government to represent as much of the American populace as it could.

An example of the FPTP system in place is if California and Delaware were the only two states in the US. If 38 million people voted Republican and only 935,000 voted Democrat, it makes sense Republicans would win 53 of the 54 seats.

This system seems perfect, until you realize you cannot delineate people into two camps as easily as the political process makes it seem.

Other countries have combated this problem by using an election process called “Proportional Representation,” or PR.

PR is a system in which the number of votes you get determines the number of seats you get.

If the American system followed this and, hypothetically, all 100 Senators were elected in a single election like the presidency (as opposed to the current state-by-state system), a third party that received 3 percent of the votes would receive three seats of the 100 available.

Using this type of framework would not work in the current system, however, as the United States created a process by which every single seat in Congress is a matter of winner-takes-all.

Even though there are 100 seats, there are 100 separate elections for those seats, rather than one general election, nullifying any effect PR would have.

Thus, to transition to a PR system would take an entire upheaval of the contemporary election process to be effective. So we have to stick with FPTP for the time being.

The problem with the FPTP two-party system is also cyclical by nature.

Republicans or Democrats constantly win their elections because people believe voting for a third party is throwing their vote away.

In essence, they vote for the lesser of two evils, as they don’t believe there is any other way, which, in turn, creates a self-fulfilling prophecy in which third-party votes do not count because they don’t get enough votes to gain a seat.

Repeat this process over and over and you end up where we are now.

There is also the issue of popularity; a number of citizens don’t realize just how well they can be represented by another party and, instead, vote for the party they believe represents a majority of their opinions.

Most humans are far too complex to be crammed into a predefined mold, and so, to say 308 million of them can fit into one of two camps is just not rational or logical by any stretch.

Someone who is pro-life, but also supports same-sex marriage has to make a choice to betray one of their own opinions, or not vote at all.

The same goes for someone who believes in lower taxes, but wants stricter environmental regulation for corporations.

Stretch this over the entire population, and it’s easy to see why people have begun to feel so disenfranchised. However, there is hope.

In the 2012 presidential election, third parties received 3.7 million votes, which is almost 4 percent of the total vote.

This doesn’t sound too promising, but between 2008 and 2014, the number of citizens registering as “Independent” was far greater than the number that signed up as “Republican” or “Democrat.”

There should also be a significant rise in the amount of third-party votes in the coming election.

Those of us who have just become eligible to vote in the past decade or so are young enough to have only seen the downsides to the two-party system, and were not around to see any of the positives.

You will be hard-pressed to find a Millennial with a positive view of the two-party system.

Another reason to hope is the way information travels. Earlier, I stated the average American citizen knows nothing of any third parties and may not even recognize the other options they have until Election Day, in which case, they have already made their choice before stepping up to the ballot.

Once third parties become more known and more sought after, the effect they will have on elections, both Congressional and presidential, will be exponential.

One local candidate winning a district seat can then spark multiple people within his party to run for more seats in his state. Before long, a significant portion of that state is represented by a third party.

This third party can then become well-known and use the entire state as a foundation to stage a national campaign for a federal seat.

The advent of social media and instantaneous information makes this a definite possibility in the coming years.

This seemed like a pipe dream even just a couple years ago, but with so many people looking for avenues to make their vote count, there has never been a better time for the rise of a third party.

No longer will an entire generation of Americans be pigeonholed into voting for a “lesser evil,” and I hope one day we will all be able to vote for someone who is an exact representation of what we believe is best for our country.

The key to making this type of factor work, however, is compromise, a word seemingly erased from any Congressional dictionary printed in the past decade.

A third party, while not seemingly much more than another trench, to add to the political stalemate in DC, is actually more important for what it brings in the future rather than what it brings currently.

With just the addition of a single third party, no longer will the campaigning parties be able to use a head-on approach to attack their opponent, but rather, they will most likely turn back in on themselves and better how they look to the public, rather than making their opponents look worse.

If a third party broke into the fray on a platform that pushed for a moderate solution to an issue, it would be much harder to fight two fronts than it would be to fortify your own position.

Take a very simple and hypothetical issue in which Democrats want to give $1.5 billion to a company or government institution that needs it.

Republicans argue the company does not need the money, and this would do nothing but increase the burden on tax payers and increase the deficit, and there is no way to be sure the money would be put to good use.

That’s a very easy argument to make, and anyone who pays taxes can easily side with the Republicans here.

This is the type of stalemate we see in every facet of American politics today.

However, have a third party devise a solution in which the government only gives out $750 million -- half of the initial offering — with the added condition that it be repaid in full within the next 30 years along with a yearly public report of where that money is going.

What this forces the Republicans to do is explain, in greater detail and hopefully with further research, why it would be better to not pay this company at all, rather than try to say what’s wrong with the $1.5 billion and the $750 million amounts together.

The same happens with the Democrats, where they must also explain why the $750 million is not enough, or if it is, they accept the compromise and the two parties beat out the Republicans.

These are the types of solutions we should be finding to the problems we currently face, but right now, our two choices are to go all or nothing.

Of course, that is an extremely simplified situation, and a majority of issues going on today are much more complex.

Nonetheless, the point still stands: Introducing a third party into a binary argument creates brand new avenues for compromise and development.

It covers grey areas of human opinion, which have never been defined by the mainstay parties today, and it will definitely improve the health of legislation, seeing as Congress is currently sitting on a 15 percent approval rating with 80 percent disapproving.

If, in 2016, you notice a Republican or Democratic candidate fully encapsulates your identity and you believe he or she will be a great president or congressman, then vote for that candidate.

On the other hand, if there is a slight bit of doubt in the back of your mind that maybe none of popular candidates are right for you and your country, try your hand at a third party.

In essence, while you may believe you just threw your vote away, the fact that you had the courage to do so means the person in front of you and the person behind you at the ballot will also have the courage to vote for someone else.

You can be pleasantly surprised on Election Day, or you can spend the next four years regretting your decision, regardless of how miniscule you felt it may be.

We always talk about changing our country for the better. Well, I’m giving you a way to do it.