Friday, November 2, 2012

The Third Party: Why America is politically bilateral and what you can do about it

Every fourth October, my Facebook and Twitter feed are overtaken by people wondering why we don't have a third party in the United States.

The simple answer is that it only occurs to most of us to wonder this once every four years.

The more complex answer is that the United States electorate polarized itself because multi-party voting created chaos too many times and was abandoned over time.  Let me repeat that: We had several political parties and we voluntarily abandoned it because it created problems.



For presidential elections, the United States operates on a principal of indirect election. Our individual votes are tallied at the state level and then votes are apportioned to the candidates by electors nominated by the state on a basis determined by that state. Every state handles these things differently, but the first candidate to hit 270 electoral votes takes the prize.

As you might remember, this is how Al Gore won the popular vote in 2000 but failed to win the presidency -- George W, Bush won in states that had more electoral votes. The people said one thing, the election went another way.

The electoral college is the reason that a multi-party scenario is a recipe for constitutional chaos, and until the electoral college goes away, this is unlikely to change.


Math (again).

More specifically, because there's a constitutional mandate in place on how to decide a tie (or no clear victor). In a race divided three ways, the odds of any one candidate having 270 electoral votes are pretty remote, which throws the presidential election into the House of Representatives and the vice presidential election into the Senate*.

Who do you think the House will vote for?

Taking into account the way that electoral votes are apportioned among the states, this can lead to some genuine problems. For one thing, the House of Representatives is not actually proportionally representative and unless the third party has a sizeable presence in the House, there is no clear path to victory for one party in a three-way race. Which makes the idea of fixing the duality of American politics a bit of a hail Mary at the moment.

What can you do about it?

The first step is to think about it more than once every fourth October. A recent poll by Gallup shows that there's hardly a groundswell of support for a third national political party.

The second is to think nationally and act locally. The idea of instituting a third party from the presidency down is mostly foolhardy. The game has to change from the ground up because it's the only way that the math works out.  In other words, before a third party president has a chance in a three-way race is if they have voices of their own in the legislature when their inclusion in the Electoral College voting throws the results into the House of Representatives.

The ground game is about getting third party senators and representatives elected before anything can happen at the executive level.  Without that, a third party presidential vote won't accomplish anything.

I won't say it's wasted but it is certainly ineffectual.

Why not just eliminate the Electoral College?

The problem with eliminating the Electoral College is that it's not all bad. It mitigates somewhat the ability of the more populated states to impose their will on the rest of the country and vice-versa. Electoral math has played a significant role in balking the rise of a number of candidates like Strom Thurmond, who ran on a segregationist ticket in 1948. Without the Electoral College, regional candidates swing an outsized bat.

Many attempts have been made to modify the American electoral system with mixed results.  I encourage you to familiarize yourself with them before taking a whack at it yourself. (It's worth noting that in 1970, even the aforementioned Strom Thurmond voted against a constitutional amendment eliminating the Electoral College, citing its history as a balancing force in divisive national elections.)

American elections are broken in many ways. From the billions in unregulated money being thrown around to the fact that there's no contingency in place for a natural disaster or terrorist attack that interrupts election day. Imagine if Superstorm Sandy struck a week later than it did. What do you think turnout would be like in the northeast then?

Here's a great video from YouTube's Explainer-Of-All-Things CGP Grey that lays things out the whole twisted scenario quite well.

* Deciding the two separately is a hold-over from the time before the 12th Amendment modified US election law to guarantee the president and vice president would be from the same political party. Prior to the passage of the 12th Amendment, the highest vote-getter in the electoral college became president and the second-highest, vice president, regardless of party. Needless to say, this scenario can be awkward to say the least.

**updated 7/12/2016 to include more annotations and correct typos

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