Two-party system inhibits third party candidates

Back to Article
Back to Article

Two-party system inhibits third party candidates

Terry Tan, Senior Staff Illustrator

Terry Tan, Senior Staff Illustrator

Terry Tan, Senior Staff Illustrator

Terry Tan, Senior Staff Illustrator

By Nick Eustis | For The Pitt News

Hang on for a minute...we're trying to find some more stories you might like.

Email This Story

With two of the most unfavorable presidential candidates in American history on the ballot, third party candidates have received more press than usual this election cycle.

Unfortunately, that press doesn’t translate to the possibility for a third party president.

Third party contenders have to deal with a system that is overwhelmingly stacked against them. To address this, the major third party candidates have taken markedly different approaches.

Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson chose the strategy of broad public recognition, campaigning heavily with the goal of polling at 15 percent nationally, the required threshold for participating in the presidential debates. This strategy has clearly not paid dividends for the Johnson campaign, since the highest he has polled nationally is 9 percent and has recently dropped to 4 percent. While he did make it on the ballot in all 50 states  — a feat worthy of praise — his numbers have decreased significantly in recent months, most likely based on his inability to name a foreign leader and to identify Aleppo has the besieged capital of Syria.

On the other hand, Jill Stein and the Green Party have chosen to focus their attention on changing the voting system itself. Stein’s platform includes reforms to a winner-take-all voting system that reduces competition in elections and depresses voter turnout.

Stein is on the right track with these sentiments — a sentence you haven’t seen much this election. Winner-take-all voting is one of the biggest threats to the viability of third parties in America and is generally a flawed system that doesn’t always represent the majority of the voters.

What exactly is a winner-take- all voting system, and why is it a problem?  

Winner-take-all voting systems, also known as first-past-the-post, are systems where the candidate who receives the most votes in the election wins, no matter how many votes put them ahead.

Jae-Jae Spoon, a political science professor at Pitt, likened the system to horse racing, from which the term is derived.

“Whichever horse crosses the finish line first wins, and it doesn’t matter if it’s by a whole horse, if it’s by a nose, if it’s by a mile — they still win,” Spoon said.

In multi-party systems, the “post” can be surprisingly low. Let’s take a hypothetical four-party election as an example. Party A receives 20 percent of the vote, Party B receives 25 percent, Party C receives 25 percent and Party D wins with 30 percent. In a winner-take-all voting system, Party D has won despite the fact that 70 percent of the citizenry that person will be representing did not vote for him or her. Even within a two-party system, winner-take-all voting sometimes fails to represent the majority of voters.

When positions of great power are being decided by popular vote, a scenario like this shouldn’t even be possible. A third party that pulls more voters from one side of the aisle than the other can completely reverse election results, even with a small percentage of the national vote.

The most dramatic example of this scenario is Ralph Nader in the 2000 election, earning 100,000 votes in Florida — just 1.6 percent of the votes in that state — while Democratic candidate Al Gore famously lost to George W. Bush by around 500 votes. The Green Party is strongly left-leaning, focusing on issues of climate change, wealth inequality and social justice. Consequently, it drew more heavily from liberal voting blocs over conservative blocs. Strong Green Party supporters will point to other factors in that election to explain Gore’s loss, like the loss of his home state of Tennessee or the Supreme Court decision.

However, Bill Scher of RealClearPolitics points out that “lots of factors can be blamed for such a paper-thin defeat. But the fact remains: One of them is Ralph Nader.” These incidents have fueled distaste for third party candidates, reducing them to “throw away votes,” in a phenomenon known as the spoiler effect. In this election in particular, third party supporters are taking a lot of heat for choosing to “vote their conscious” when voters on the left and right both think there’s too much at stake to do so.

The good news is that there is a possible solution — preferential voting. Under that system, voters rank the candidates from one on down, indicating who they prefer the most and least. Third parties, in particular, would benefit from a preferential voting system, sometimes called the alternative vote or instant runoff voting.

Using the 2000 election as an example, a preferential voting system would have allowed voters who wanted to vote for Nader to do so without fear of creating a spoiler effect.

“If you happened to be in Florida in 2000, and you wanted to vote for Nader, you could’ve ranked Nader [first], and you could’ve ranked Gore second,” said Michael MacKenzie, a political science professor at Pitt. “Then… if Nader gets knocked off, your Gore vote would nevertheless help win against Bush.” In Maine, there is currently a Ranked Choice Voting system on the ballot this month for all statewide races. If the measure passes, it would be the first state to implement ranked voting.

Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that this kind of reform could take place at a countrywide level. In order to change the way we elect presidents, we would need to amend the Constitution.

To do that, the change would have to be proposed either by Congress and receive a two-thirds majority vote in both houses or by a constitutional convention called for by two-thirds of the state legislatures. Both of these options would require the overwhelming bipartisan support of the Democrats and Republicans, who infamously hate working with each other and have a vested interest in keeping the current system in place.

With the extreme difficulty involved in changing the way we vote in America, it makes more sense why candidates like Gary Johnson focused on other goals, like gaining access to the presidential debates.

But no matter how many people recognize Johnson or Stein as candidates, neither has a chance of being elected without an overhaul of the electoral process.

Federal funding and debate spots are just consolation prizes to third party candidates, and no amount of television screen time can make Johnson, Stein or anyone else competitive in a system where third party candidates are simply third wheels.

Write to Nick at

Leave a comment.