Would a Third Party Make Any Difference?

Graphic showing a question mark for a third political party

Graphic showing a Democrat donkey, Republican elephant, and a question mark for a third political party
Last week, Meredith College released a new poll showing that 56.7% of North Carolina voters believe a third political party would be good for our state and the nation. Moreover, those respondents agreed with a survey statement that said “…the two major parties do not do an adequate job of representing Americans.”

The Meredith poll results will come as no surprise to anyone who follows Tar Heel politics. After all, those of us who are registered as “Unaffiliated”, comprise the second largest voting block in the state, now numbering 2.1 million. That compares to 2.5 million registered Democrats, and 2 million Republicans.

Unfortunately, “Unaffiliated” is a designation, and not a political party. Absent being the latter, we alternative-seeking voters have always had a plethora of splinter parties to choose from. During the 2016 presidential election for example, there were 36 nationally recognized political parties, including the Libertarian party, the Green party, and the Socialist party. There were also over 30 active parties indigenous to particular states, like the Vermont Progressive party. The problem is that none of these parties have stood a chance in Hades of putting their candidate into federal office. In order to be viable, a political party has to be able to amass enough votes to win control of the White House, or a chamber of Congress, and right now, no such alternative party has that kind of strength.

In all fairness, though, the two major parties have done everything they can to prevent a national third party from becoming viable, including setting the bar high for upstarts who might dilute their power. For example, here in the Old North State, if a third party candidate wants to get on the ballot in 2020, her party must have garnered 2% of the total votes cast in 2016. Absent that, she must collect names totaling 2% of the votes cast in the last gubernatorial election. Since over 4.6 million people voted for Cooper and McCrory, that means a third party candidate for president must collect over 9,000 signatures if she wants her name to appear on the ballot.

But let’s not forget that there are 2.1 million unaffiliated voters registered in North Carolina, so if we all organized into the official Unaffiliated Party, and if our counterparts in the other 49 states do the same thing, we can be a viable force, capable of winning elections instead of spoiling them. The down side is that once that happens, it won’t be long before leaders in the Unaffiliated party will require our candidates to only support other Unaffiliated candidates, and once they’re elected, only vote for legislation that is endorsed by the Unaffiliated leadership. In time, our grand new party would become as partisan as the two old parties. That’s because when we humans get organized, we tend to become more tribal. We conform rather than question. We become less independent and more intolerant. Even worse, we often lose sight of the principals which brought us together in the first place. Just think about some of the early settlers who came to America in order to escape religious persecution, then immediately started burning witches and redacting Mueller reports.

Ironically, the Constitution makes no mention of political parties, and yet today, the two major parties are charged with interpreting, amending, and subverting that very document. With all due respect to the Meredith poll respondents, forming a nationally viable third party might seem like the best way to “adequately represent the needs of Americans”, but it might also just lead to more partisan gridlock. There’s one last thing to consider. In 2016, third party candidates siphoned off votes in key states that would have gone to Hillary, and that put Trump in the White House. If you’re among the 2.1 million unaffiliated folks in North Carolina, or the 56.7% who say we need a third party, you might want to reflect on 2016, and be a little less independent in 2020.

 
 

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