It is a key aspect to a functioning democracy that more than two parties have the potential to win an election, or at least have reasonable influence within government.
America on the other hand, is locked into its ‘two-party’ system, apparently with little potential for change.
While millions of Americans are due to go to the polls today, an estimated 90 million will not vote whilst the two major parties may receive in the region of 60-70 million votes apiece. In 2016, the third parties and independent candidates (there are 17 in 2020) received 10 million votes between them.
This gulf in votes received between the many third parties and independent candidates is systemic in its electoral culture, much as it is our own.
The first US President, George Washington, was famously anti-partisan. In his final address he particularly highlighted this point, arguing partisan politics weakened the government. Despite this, Washington himself was sympathetic to the Federalist party in opposition to Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican party.
As American ‘democracy’ developed, parties shifted and changed, and came and went, until 1864 when the Democrats and Republican parties established dominance. Whilst there have been occasional periods of a third party or an independent candidate doing relatively well in US Presidential elections, these are rare.
In 1912, President Theodore Roosevelt’s Progressive party came second to Woodrow Wilson’s Democrat party. However, the Progressive party was merely a split within the Republican party, leaving William Howard Taft in charge of the Republican party. Roosevelt’s remarkable success can be attributed to his popularity as former President but also his allure to Republicans who had followed him across to the Progressive party.
In more recent history, Ross Perot received 18.9% of the vote in the 1992 election. Earlier in the campaign, Perot actually led the polls in what was shaping up to be a close three-way split alongside eventual winner Bill Clinton and incumbent George H.W. Bush, but Perot lost support after dropping out in the summer and waiting several weeks to resume his campaign.
Despite Perot polling the highest for a third-party candidate since Theodore Roosevelt in 1912, he failed to win a single Electoral College vote. Since Roosevelt, only two third-party candidates have won more than one Electoral College votes: Strom Thurmond and George Wallace. Both ran to gain the support of Southern segregationists, to reasonable success as they won 39 and 46 Electoral College votes, respectively.
The way in which the US election is based on a First Past the Post system locks the two-party system in place as the majority see that only the two established major parties have a chance of winning, meaning a vote for a third-party would be seemingly wasted. Studies also indicate this system leads to voter apathy, as those alienated from the two-party system feel powerless to change it and therefore decide not to vote.
The non-voter is the scourge of Presidential candidates, as the non-voting block far outweighs any majority the winning candidate will traditionally receive. This in theory points to the reasonable potential for a third-party candidate to be popular enough to win, only needing to entice a chunk of the non-voters to vote for them, along with floating voters who will traditionally side for one of the main parties. Despite this, a combination of lack of enthusiasm or allegations of complex, or even suppressive, voting systems means this group is unlikely to ever emerge as the king makers for a third-party candidate.
Worst still, campaigns where one or more of the candidates are as diverse as they arguably currently are, polarisation can occur where voters and previous non-voters can migrate to the one of the two major parties they are most content with, to attempt to thwart the other candidate’s chance of resuming or assuming office.
This is particularly pertinent with the backdrop of a national crisis. Parallels to this 2020 election may be found with that of the 1932 election. Following the 1929 Wall Street Crash and consequent unpopularity of Herbert Hoover, nearly three million more people voted as the Democrats vote share increased by nearly eight million. A record 2/3rds of the 2016 vote total, around 100 million votes, have already been cast in early voting, suggesting the turnout could end up being a good deal higher in this election cycle.
As the current Covid-19 crisis may encourage more people to vote and unpopularity of the two candidates, we could see a rise in third party votes, as again in 1932 when the Socialist party vote rose to 2.23% to finish in third. Although much like Henry Mattoon Thomas in 1932, it is unlikely even Kanye West’s Birthday Party can poll more than a few percentage points during what has been one of the most divisive US Election campaigns in history.
The best hope for the third-party and independent candidates it the outcome of this election, whatever that might be, could prompt a conversation to change the voting system and move away from the shackles of the two parties, maintained by the First Past the Post voting system.
There is some indication this discussion may begin, as for the first-time voters in Maine will be choosing their President via Ranked Choice Voting. There is also pressure in both Alaska and Massachusetts to adopt a similar alternative voting method to do away with First Past the Post, potentially shaping the way for America to embrace a voting system which enables more diversity in the results and helps make more votes count.