A Fresh Take On The Difficulties of Running Third Party

There is more significance to casting a third party vote: it can just as well be interpreted as a reflection of a voter’s dissatisfaction with the current status quo, and those in power.

BROOKLYN (Workers World Today) — Political scientists have known since the 1950s that as a consequence of plurality voting alternative parties would be marginalized in the resulting two-party system, adhering to what is commonly referred to as Duverger’s law. What this leads to are disparate branches of competition, where more recognizable parties such as the Republican or Democratic party become synonymous with the government, and smaller, balkanized parties must scramble to even appear on a voter’s ballot.

It is important to note that the two-party system does not imply a mutual foothold between a political duo; oftentimes, as is the case with New York State, one party wins out time and time again. Unsurprisingly, the state that has voted for every Democratic presidential nominee since Ronald Reagan also considers itself a champion of the Democratic party. This year’s election day was described as a sweeping “blue wave” for this reason—but what does a one-party monopoly in a two-party system spell for the political competition in a democratic election?   

When the New York Magazine can publish articles with wry titles such as “What New Yorkers and Republicans Think of New York City,” the distinction between political parties gains a passive-aggressive traction: real New Yorkers are democrats, full stop; those not following the mainstream’s political ideology are considered to hold fringe stances, and their votes must invariably run counter to a city, state, or country’s self-proclaimed identity.  

This mentality perhaps explains the stigma behind voting third party, and by continuation, why so many of these parties, such as the Green and Libertarian party, struggle to make a dent on national and gubernatorial levels. They have been made the scapegoat of America’s major parties, as was the case, most notably, in the 1992 election, which saw one of the greatest turnouts for a third party nominee in history. Ross Perot, who ran as the independent candidate, drew close to 20 percent of the vote, helping deliver Bill Clinton the landslide victory over George H.W. Bush. Then, as in the 2016 presidential election after Hillary Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump, third party voters were accused of “spoiling” the election and for siphoning votes away from the other two respective parties.

But there is more significance to casting a third party vote than this makes out: it can just as well be interpreted as a reflection of a voter’s dissatisfaction with the current status quo, and those in power. What’s more, alternate parties don’t owe the Republicans or Democrats anything, so they should not be held accountable for their shortcomings. These are all separate entities vying for the political power necessary to exact their own agenda—just with a disproportionate amount of resources, name recognition, and prominence on the ballot.

The ballot itself epitomizes the aspirations for many third party candidates and nominees, such as Libertarian Don Garrity, who ran in 2017 for Manhattan’s district 2 as a representative for City Council. Although he would ultimately lose to democrat Carlina Rivera, Garrity attests that his goal, first and foremost, was “not to ask for votes but the acknowledgement of the libertarian party, so we could give voters the choice they deserved,” he said during a recent interview; and he knew from the start that doing so would be an uphill battle.

Garrity described last year’s ballot season as the experience that showed him firsthand how Sisyphean it was to compete with the well-entrenched two-party nominees. While Garrity and his wife, along with some friends and fellow libertarians, went door to door in the summer’s blistering heat, small armies of volunteers were being commanded by the democrat and republican candidates to collect an exponential amount of more signatures. And although Garrity garnered well over the 450 signatures required to be an eligible nominee, he wasn’t immune to the stigma of running third party.  

It was an outcome Garrity had both anticipated and described as a necessary evil, “libertarians like leaving people alone and here I am bothering nine-hundred of them,” he said. “The problem,” Garrity continued, “is also how most people think that if you sign a libertarian clipboard then it’s like you’re voting.” This misconception helps explain some of the backlash they received while propositioning people for signatures, some of whom most likely did believe that a signature for Don Garrity implied a libertarian vote.

In total Garrity acquired 905 signatures—a substantial number by his party’s standards—and his efforts “trickled up” the chain of command. On election day there were five libertarians on the 2017 ballot, whose combined efforts beat out the Green party by 40 votes to retain their spot on the ballot.

Looking at the most recent election cycle, however, one has to wonder if a spot on the ballot is all alternate parties can hope for. While Libertarian Larry Sharpe received 90,816 votes for governor, putting the party well over the necessary 50,000-vote threshold needed to remain on the ballot for another four years, Andrew Cuomo received over 3 million votes, some of which were netted by cross-endorsements from smaller parties such as the Working Families Party. Not only did that endorsement give the governor 106,008 votes, it moved the party up one position on the ballot.

But the decision didn’t come easy: the WFP has a strained track record with Governor Andrew Cuomo, who has now been offered their ballot line in the last three elections. Back in 2014 when Cuomo was running against Zephyr Teachout in the Democratic primaries, the governor backpedaled almost immediately on his promise to allow municipalities to raise the minimum wage, which had helped secure his WFP endorsement. Asked about his decision to rescind Cuomo told reporters, “It’s very simple at these political conventions: you wither win or lose…At the end of the day I won the endorsement, and that’s what’s really relevant.”

Whether this cross endorsement was a matter of political subterfuge may never be known for sure; on their part, however, the WFP criticized Cuomo for being a “corporate Democrat,” and initially opted to endorse his 2018 rival, Cynthia Nixon. When it was first revealed that the WFP had chosen Nixon for their ballot line, two labor allies of Governor Cuomo pulled out of the party. It was only at the 5PM deadline on October 3rd that the party agreed to back Cuomo, a decision that protected their position on 2018’s ballot and has secured their spot for another four years, but at the cost of becoming another cobble stone in the governor’s political boulevard.

When asked whether he would feel comfortable with the Libertarian party endorsing another candidate Don Garrity said, “I understand why it stirs mixed emotions in so many people. The party benefits, but at the expense of bona fide candidate. Are [the cross-endorsed candidates] even going to espouse my libertarian beliefs?” He couldn’t be sure, and other members of the party have voiced similar disquiet at the idea, particularly Jim Rosenbeck, who has expressed his opposition to becoming the “Republican-lite” party for the sake of retaining their position on the ballot: but that is what an alternate party’s priorities must boil down to, and although it’s not an easy decision, it sometimes has to be made.

The question then is whether the national podium is large enough for two, let alone three or four candidates hoping to spread their party’s agenda. When the media prioritizes its coverage of one or two well-known candidates, third party nominees slip through the cracks, missing out on vital opportunities to gain recognition for their party, as was the case for Gary Johnson and Jill Stein in the 2016 election, who both failed to qualify for the televised debates and faded back into the woodwork. If, on a national level, the voices of alternate parties can be stymied in such a way without consequence, then they will be pigeonholed into cross-endorsement for survival’s sake.

In the wake of the “blue wave” movement, with even less political competition on the horizon for the Empire State, Don Garrity remains hopeful for his party. So long as the Libertarians can effectively communicate their message to the American people, and retain the support they gained in this last election, then things will inevitably look up. And maybe one day soon, the independent parties will not be so synonymous with “fringe” state politics. There may not be an independent president for quite some time, but this, at least, would be a step in the right direction.

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