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Third Party

None of the above.

That seems to be a common sentiment regarding the choice between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump this year. People who typically vote Republican aren't comfortable with Trump, and people who tend to vote Democratic have concerns about Hillary.

I personally think those whose concerns with Hillary are not ideological but are about her character or her integrity are misguided. I think she has been maligned unfairly by her political enemies, and disproportionate attention has been paid to a few instances of questionable judgment, ignoring her overwhelmingly strong record of doing great things. I also think electing Donald Trump would put our nation and the world on a dangerous trajectory.

But for now I will let others address Hillary's strong qualifications and Trump's gross lack thereof. I want to talk about the option of a third-party candidate, more in the abstract than in the specifics of this year's election.

Some people I know are considering voting for a third-party candidate because they don't like either of the major party candidates. And some believe that our two-party system is deeply flawed and needs to be dismantled. That may be true, but voting for a third-party presidential candidate is absolutely not the way to bring about the end of two-party politics, and there are two fundamental reasons why:
  1. Third parties never have and never will become major parties at the presidential level. They have to start as grass-roots movements. Once they get representation in state legislatures and in Congress, they can nominate genuinely credible presidential candidates. Otherwise, their candidates will be unvetted, untested, and unviable. Third parties that start at the presidential level are doomed to obscurity.

    Consider the Reform Party. In 1996 they nominated Ross Perot, who, as an independent candidate in 1992 received 18.9% of the popular vote but not a single electoral vote. As the Reform Party candidate Perot won about 8 million votes, less than half the number he won in 1992. And where is the Reform Party today? In the last two elections they didn't even crack a thousand votes nationwide. They actually have a presidential candidate this year, but does anyone know who it is? And does anyone know what the Reform Party stands for?

    The last third-party candidate to win any electoral votes was George Wallace of the American Independent Party in 1968, and before that, Strom Thurmond of the States' Rights Party in 1948. These two candidates ran on segregationist platforms and each won a handful of southern states. But neither of these candidates had any effect on the outcome of the election. The States' Rights Party (aka the "Dixiecrats") disbanded after that election. And the American Independent Party has failed to capture as much as a quarter of a percent of the vote since 1976.

    This year the two minor parties with candidates who are somewhat well-known are the Libertarian and Green parties. The Libertarians have been around since 1972, but 2012 is the first time their candidate, Gary Johnson, got over a million votes. Johnson is their candidate again this year, and because of the unpopularity of the two major party candidates, he will likely do better this year. But how much better? Certainly not enough to win, and in fact not enough to win a single state. The Green Party has done better than the Libertarians, with Ralph Nader capturing a whopping 2.74% of the popular vote in 2000, their second presidential election. But since then they have not cracked 0.4%. Jill Stein, who was their candidate in 2012, got less than half-a-million votes then. She, too, might do better this year, but she cannot win. And neither the Libertarians nor the Green Party will become anything more than they are already.

    A viable third party has never existed in US history. The only way for a third party to be successful is to overtake one of the two major parties. The Tea Party was the one genuine attempt to make a grass-roots effort, and they still have the potential to take over the Republican Party, especially if Trump loses in November. If the Tea Party were to take control of the Republican Party, it is conceivable that disaffected Republicans might break away and form a third party in the center. It's also possible that followers of Bernie Sanders will succeed in building a grass roots movement that could take over the Democratic Party from the left, and that could result in more centrist Democrats breaking away. But it's never going to happen without destroying one or both of the two existing parties.

    And it won't, and shouldn't, start with the presidency.

  2. The US Constitution makes it virtually impossible for a third-party candidate to be elected to the presidency unless it becomes a major party. And this is true regardless of the fact that political parties aren't even mentioned in the Constitution.

    Here's what the 12th amendment says:
    The Electors shall meet in their respective states and vote by ballot for President and Vice-President, one of whom, at least, shall not be an inhabitant of the same state with themselves; they shall name in their ballots the person voted for as President, and in distinct ballots the person voted for as Vice-President, and they shall make distinct lists of all persons voted for as President, and of all persons voted for as Vice-President, and of the number of votes for each, which lists they shall sign and certify, and transmit sealed to the seat of the government of the United States, directed to the President of the Senate;-The President of the Senate shall, in the presence of the Senate and House of Representatives, open all the certificates and the votes shall then be counted;-The person having the greatest Number of votes for President, shall be the President, if such number be a majority of the whole number of Electors appointed; and if no person have such majority, then from the persons having the highest numbers not exceeding three on the list of those voted for as President, the House of Representatives shall choose immediately, by ballot, the President. But in choosing the President, the votes shall be taken by states, the representation from each state having one vote; a quorum for this purpose shall consist of a member or members from two-thirds of the states, and a majority of all the states shall be necessary to a choice. And if the House of Representatives shall not choose a President whenever the right of choice shall devolve upon them, before the fourth day of March next following, then the Vice-President shall act as President, as in the case of the death or other constitutional disability of the President-The person having the greatest number of votes as Vice-President, shall be the Vice-President, if such number be a majority of the whole number of Electors appointed, and if no person have a majority, then from the two highest numbers on the list, the Senate shall choose the Vice-President; a quorum for the purpose shall consist of two-thirds of the whole number of Senators, and a majority of the whole number shall be necessary to a choice. But no person constitutionally ineligible to the office of President shall be eligible to that of Vice-President of the United States.
    So first, the winner of the election is the candidate who receives the most electoral votes if such number be a majority of the whole number of Electors. If no candidate has a majority, then the House of Representatives shall choose immediately, by ballot, the President. And in that ballot, each state gets one vote. The key word is "immediately," meaning this is the outgoing House of Representatives, since the vote takes place in December, before the newly elected representatives have been sworn in. In the current House, 30 of the delegations are majority Republican, so it is a virtual certainty that a Republican would be elected. And they can only select from the top three Electoral vote-getters, so it is pretty much guaranteed that if no candidate hits the 270 Electoral vote threshold, Trump will be the next president.

    Third-party candidates could potentially tip the outcome of the election by siphoning off more votes from one candidate than the other. Or they could prevent either of the two major-party candidates from getting a majority and throw the election to the House. The one thing they cannot do is win the election. And if they can't win the election, they can't be the driving force behind a viable third party.
I can understand voting for a third-party candidate under certain circumstances. If the election result is a foregone conclusion because one candidate is so clearly ahead of the other, voting for a third-party candidate as a protest seems reasonable. I actually did that in 1980, when Jimmy Carter was running for reelection. I hated the thought of Ronald Reagan being elected, but Carter's presidency was a failure in my eyes, and I couldn't bring myself to vote for him again. I was pretty sure Reagan would win, so I voted for John Anderson. It was a Reagan landslide, so Anderson's candidacy did not affect the outcome.

But in a close election, if the choice is between a candidate you're dissatisfied with and a candidate you are petrified might win, voting for a third-party candidate is a terrible idea with no justification. It is equivalent to a vote for the candidate you like the least.

Diminishing or ending the dominance of the two major parties in our political system may have some real positive effect on how we are governed. But for the most part, voting for a third-party candidate at the presidential level makes no sense because it will never produce any desired outcome. It won't prevent a candidate you don't like or don't trust or don't agree with on the issues from being elected. It won't absolve you of responsibility because you didn't vote for the winner. And it won't bring about a revolution for real change. If that's what you're hoping for, get behind third-party candidates locally. Get them elected to local office. Help them work their way up the ladder.

It won't be easy. But it won't be impossible.

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