Historically, third parties have sprung up from across the ideological spectrum. The abolitionist movement spawned the Republican Party, and in 1860 Abraham Lincoln triumphed in a four-way race. Although he was the last third party candidate to take the White House, third parties have periodically made an impact by pushing issues into the mainstream that wouldn’t have otherwise received attention.
The abolitionist, women’s suffrage, prohibition, market regulation, pro-labor, anti-war, states rights, anti-federal government, balanced budget, anti-deficit spending movements, have all been on platforms of third party candidates. The major parties preferred to ignore these issues in their “safe” campaigns. When third parties brought these controversial issues to the forefront of public debate, the major parties co-opted these movements as they knew they were supported by public opinion.
In 2011 with several polls suggesting a majority of Americans would vote for a third party candidate, Congress had an 8% approval rating.
The middle class was up in arms, Occupiers camped in public parks, and Tea-partiers distrusted any government program. Pollsters believed it to be a perfect storm for third party candidates.
Americans Elect – Online voting.
The group Americans Elect jumped on this dissatisfaction bandwagon saying, “If the two-party politics system isn’t working for you, change the system.” AE’s plan was to get on all 50 state ballots and hold an online primary. Not a political party, but providing a place on the ballot in all 50 states would guarantee a third party candidate ballot access and to be part of the presidential debates. Getting on the ballot and being part of the debates would allow a third party candidate a good shot at national media coverage.
In September 2011 a Gallup poll showed 55% of those polled supported the idea that a third major party is needed on the American political scene. According to Gallup, “Despite American’s attitudes, no third-party candidate who garners a significant level of support has emerged….”
In most countries several political party candidates are voted upon during presidential elections. Why is the US locked into a two-party System? Lack of news coverage. National news media often dismiss third party candidates as not able to win, so not worthy of coverage. With no coverage, third party candidates rarely attract voter’s attention.
Many state electoral laws hamper third party placement on state ballots. Some states require large numbers of signatures petitioning the state for a candidate to be placed on the ballot. New parties are faced with signature deadlines difficult to meet. Before state governments printed ballots, starting in 1880, political parties handed out tickets with their candidates name upon them, or voters wrote their choice of candidate upon ballots, which were then deposited in ballot boxes for counting.
When the 1880s ballot reform placed government in charge of printing ballots, control over who could be on went to elected officials for regulation. Often regulations benefited the parties in power for ballot access.
The Commission on Presidential Debates is a private company, which, starting in 2000, revised debate access rules stipulating debate participants must clear 15% in pre-debate polls and be on enough state ballots to win the Electoral College.
In Presidential races the majority requirement of the Electoral College versus the popular vote, adds a disincentive to third party candidates and voters who would otherwise support them. With no run-off voting (allowing for a second choice should the first choice not win) most states give the candidate with the largest number of votes the electoral votes of that state. Spoiler alert. Polling support for third-party candidates is typically higher than the actual percentage of the vote third-party candidates win on Election Day. Often voters who prefer candidates running outside the Democrat or the Republican parties fear they must support a major-party candidate or will be “throwing their vote away if backing the third-party option. Fear of a “spoiler vote” keeps voters locked into the two party system.