The History of Third Party Elections

The History of Third Party Elections

by Joshua Hellmann, Committee to Elect Auxier 

Congress is a deeply unpopular institution. This is not opinion, but fact, as revealed by numerous polls measuring Congressional approval. Yet somehow, the two political parties which have essentially monopolized Congress for nearly seven decades continue to be re-elected. This disconnect reveals a deeply broken system. But paradoxically, it wasn't always this broken. And it doesn't have to continue to be broken. Despite the massive racial and gender disenfranchisement of the past, our country was more democratic in one measure: we had a multi-party system.

The most dramatic product of our country's past multi-party system is the Republican Party itself. Born of the abolitionist movement in the 1850's, the Republican Party was able to supplant the Whig Party, electing their first members of Congress in 1856, and their first President in 1860, Illinois' own Abraham Lincoln. The emergence of the Republican Party, however, did not immediately result in the flawed two-party system of our age. Other political parties were also able to elect their own to Congress during the latter half of the 19th century; the House of Representatives historical archives has a chart of the partisan composition of Congress during that time, and another archival source may be found here. Among the various third parties which gained representation, the most notable was the Populist Party, which managed to elect nearly three dozen people to the House and Senate in the 1890's.

The early 20th century also saw third party success, most notably in 1912 where two strong third parties contested the Presidency and Congress. The first of the two was the Socialist Party, led by Eugene Debs. The Socialist Party of the early 1900's was much more powerful than its current incarnation. Debs received 6% of the popular vote in his 1912 Presidential run, and the Socialists elected two of their own to Congress during their heyday. The second strong third party in 1912 was the Bull Moose Progressive Party, led by Theodore Roosevelt. The Bull Moose Progressives elected nearly two dozen of their own to the House and Senate, and Roosevelt received 27% of the popular vote and 88 electoral votes, enough for second place. Outside the four-way election of 1912, other third parties such as the Farmer Laborers of Minnesota and various other incarnations of the Progressive Party would also elect some of their own to Congress. But as it turns out, this would be the last hurrah of our nation's multi-party system. Winter was coming.

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The Cold War was a godsend to demagogues like Senator Joe McCarthy, who used fear of an outside threat, of Russia in particular, to target the political Left. This hostile political climate destroyed what had once been a thriving multi-party system, as the chart above depicts. The very few third party successes during this period were often associated with the segregationist right-wing of the Southern states. There were no more Socialists, no more Progressives in Congress. The Minnesota Farmer Laborers fused with the Democrats of that state and were no longer independent of the two ruling parties. And in 1988, the Democratic and Republican Parties seized control of the national debates, sidelining the League of Women Voters and setting up the Commission on Presidential Debates. After Independent Ross Perot's performance in the 1992 debates, third party voices were effectively silenced nationally in the United States.

There are, however, alternatives to the current electoral system in place here in the United States. The website FairVote details two of these methods: Ranked Choice Voting, and Proportional Representation. Both methods address some of the flaws inherent in a first-past-the-post system, such as the so-called spoiler effect. Ranked Choice, as its name suggests, allows voters to rank their choices on the ballot in order of their preference. And proportional representation gives parties representation in national legislatures and parliaments proportional to the percentage of the vote they received, starting at a minimum threshold such as 2 or 3%. Many nations which hold elections, such as those in Europe, use one or both of those methods and as a result they tend to have multi-party systems. Many international Green Parties have representation in their national governments thanks to the effects of proportional representation and Ranked Choice Voting.

It goes without saying that third parties in the United States, despite being marginalized and nearly silenced, are not going away. Parties such as the Greens and the Libertarians have every right to associate, to engage in free political speech, and otherwise participate in the electoral system just as much as the Democratic and Republican Parties do. The Constitution is clear on this. It is our hope that one day, more people will recognize this fact, recognize that nothing is currently forcing them to support two political parties that repeated polls, such as those mentioned above, show they do not support. The Green Party and Randy Auxier are deeply supportive of electoral reforms like Ranked Choice Voting and proportional representation, but we can't make much headway on our own. We need your help in order to enact meaningful electoral reform and foster a multi-party system in America once again. By working together, we can do better.

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