Photo: Various sources, edited by Side by Side News

Three's Company

The Challenges of Third Parties in America

Colton Williams

Under the Radar

August 27th, 2016


Third party candidates are like the kid you never really wanted at your birthday party, but your mom always made you invite anyway. You know, the kid who was really into Star Wars. Or the kid who stuck his or her pencil in their mouth and then handed it back to you. Or the kid who hung upside down from the monkey bars the entire recess. Have you ever given that poor kid a chance, though? Maybe he or she could become your friend. Maybe he or she isn’t so bad after all. Maybe he or she is presenting valid arguments and appealing to those dissatisfied with the mainstream political system.  


The fact that we have to call third parties ‘third parties’ is in itself a problem. We refer to every party that isn’t Democratic or Republican as a ‘third’ option, despite the existence of multiple parties organized nationwide. And we don’t give it a second (or third) thought. This piece aims to explain the barriers and stigmas third parties, and how their marginalization is preventing our nation from having an open, honest political dialogue.


The Commission on Presidential Debates


In his book on his 2000 presidential campaign, Crashing the Party, consumer advocate and Green Party presidential nominee Ralph Nader recounted his experience of  a presidential debate at the University of Massachusetts. Not as a debater, of course, but as an audience member: Nader had a ticket to watch the debate on TV in an auditorium close by. But, as he arrived, Nader was met by a state trooper and two men representing the Commission on Presidential Debates. The men told Nader that regardless of whether he had a ticket, he was not welcome and would have to leave, and if he did not leave as instructed, they would have to arrest him. Keep in mind that Nader was a presidential candidate attending a presidential debate. In 2004, Libertarian Party nominee Michael Badnarik and Green Party nominee David Cobb were arrested after purposefully crossing a police line in protest of their exclusion from the debates.

The Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) has sponsored and produced the presidential and vice presidential debates every four years since 1988. The organization is a registered nonprofit founded by the Republican and Democratic Parties. The CPD is co-chaired by the former chairman of the Republican National Committee and President Clinton’s press secretary. I think that calls into question objectivity on the Commission’s part. It’s like something out of Kafka’s The Trial – a bureaucratic body serving its own self-interest, all the power behind them, able to swat away any opposition like flies.


In 2000, the CPD established a rule stating that in order for a candidate to be in the televised debates, they must poll at 15% support in five national polls. As several third party candidates have pointed out, including Nader and 2016 Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson, the CPD’s 15% rule is a sort of catch-22. As a third party, it’s difficult to get high polling numbers if you don’t get national attention – i.e., televised debates – and you can’t get into the debates unless you have high poll numbers. This is really nothing more than an arbitrary rule ostensibly in place to prevent a crowded stage. 

In 2015, the CPD released its 2016 Non-Partisan Candidate Selection Criteria, which states:


“In addition to being Constitutionally eligible, candidates must appear on a sufficient number of state ballots to have a mathematical chance of winning a majority vote in the Electoral College, and have a level of support of at least 15 percent of the national electorate as determined by five selected national public opinion polling organizations, using the average of those organizations’ most recently publicly-reported results at the time of the determination.”


Half of that rule makes perfect sense. I don’t think it is unreasonable that a candidate only be allowed to debate if he or she stands a mathematical chance at winning the presidency. But why have the polling requirement? It relies on unreliable polling data, and it seems superfluous; you can already gauge support by requiring the party be on a significant number of state ballots.


Additional questions about the CPD center around their donors. In 2008, the nonprofit investigative journalism group, Center for Public Integrity, found that 93% of donations to the CPD came from just six donors. When the Center for Public Integrity requested the donor list, all six names had been blanked out. Nonprofits are not required to release such information, but it is odd considering the CPD’s mission to “provide the best possible information to viewers and listeners.”


There have been several lawsuits against the CPD. Nader brought a case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit on the basis that corporate contributions violated the Federal Election Campaign Act. The court ruled that due to the specific powers given to the Federal Election Commission (FEC) by Congress, the court could not overrule the FEC’s previous decision that third parties were unable to prove that the CPD was controlled by the Republican and Democratic parties, and the CPD had enough reason for barring third parties from the debates. In 2012, Gary Johnson filed a lawsuit against the CPD, the Republican National Committee, and the Democratic National Committee, claiming violation of antitrust statutes. The case was dismissed in 2014, but in 2015, Gary Johnson, Jill Stein, and the Libertarian and Green parties filed another antitrust lawsuit, this time against the CPD, RNC, DNC, Mitt Romney, and President Obama. This case, however, was also dismissed.


This election season, in particular, has proven the need to have a variety of voices and viewpoints on the national stage. When the two major party nominees have the highest unfavorable ratings in history, what’s the harm – for a true democracy – in allowing accomplished, passionate candidates to participate in the debates, who are supposed to provide differing views in the first place?


The Federal Election Commission


The two major political parties receive public funding for their presidential campaigns. A limited form of public funding is available in the primary elections by the way of matching funds. To qualify, a candidate must show “broad-based public support” and raise $5,000 dollars or more in at least 20 states, the caveat being that though an individual may make up to a $2,700 donation to a primary candidate, only $250 of each donation counts toward the $5,000 requirement in each state. In the general election, the nominee from each major party is eligible to receive a grant for $20 million, as long as they meet the eligibility requirements and rules for the use of funds. The FEC defines major and ‘minor’ parties in a very specific way. A minor party is one that received between 5 and 25% of the vote in the previous election. As of now, neither the Green Party nor the Libertarian Party even qualify as ‘minor.’ The amount of public funding available to minor parties is, states FEC, “based on the ratio of the party’s popular vote in the preceding Presidential election to the average popular vote of the two major parties in that election.” Third party challengers will pretty much always be running behind, especially as long as their validity as a party is considered in comparison to the major parties.


Ballot Access


One of the biggest challenges for third party presidential candidates is simply getting their name on the ballot. Each state has its own rules for determining who will appear on their ballots. These rules can vary widely between the states. In Kentucky, for example, there are different classifications that determine ballot access: political ‘groups’ are parties that received less than 2% of the vote in Kentucky in the last presidential race, and must collect signatures to appear on ballots, like independents. Political ‘organizations’ are parties that earned between 2% and 20% of the vote, and political ‘parties’ are parties that received more than 20%; both ‘organizations’ and ‘parties’ have automatic ballot access. In Louisiana, anyone – as an independent or from an ‘unrecognized’ party – can be on the ballot as long as they pay a fee or collect signatures. Established parties have automatic access. Most states have some sort of both signature and threshold requirements for third parties.


Again, third parties have a tougher road to travel in this respect. There are practical reasons, though, to have requirements to be on a ballot. This year, the Libertarian Party is on track to be on the ballot in all fifty states, a major achievement. The problem is that the parties have to go through the process and meet the requirements every election cycle, which presents a significant burden to mounting a successful campaign.


Voter Registration and Groupthink


To be entirely forthright, I consider myself a libertarian. I have donated to Gary Johnson’s presidential campaign, and I plan on voting for him this fall. However, I am registered to vote as a Republican. My views align much more with Johnson than Trump or Pence, and I feel the GOP doesn’t deserve my vote and neither does their candidate. But, I registered as a Republican because my home state has closed primaries, and registering as a member of a party outside of the big two would effectively mean I couldn’t vote in any primary election. There are people all over the country who feel the same way, and this may also hinder a third party’s ability to boost their membership numbers and run serious campaigns.


One of the biggest barriers for third party candidates is a fear of being the odd one out. Tell any of your hardline Republican or Democrat friends you’re voting for a third party nominee, and you can guarantee they will say: “You’re just helping (the other nominee we don’t like) win the election!” This argument, though true to a point (many blame Ralph Nader for costing Al Gore the election in 2000), is not something anyone should consider when going into the voting booth. It is not my job to elect a candidate – it is the candidate’s job to convince me to elect them. Whoever wins, wins. If candidate X gets the most votes, he or she wins. If they don’t, they lose. Voting your conscience, and voting for who your views truly align with is how a democracy is supposed to work, and acquiescing just because a candidate has an R or a D next to their name isn’t in the spirit of America. Many also want to feel a part of a winning team, and the only candidates that have a realistic shot at winning the presidency are those of the Republican and Democratic parties. They feel their vote is wasted or unimportant if they use it on a third party, though I would argue it is much more powerful and worthwhile to vote for what you believe in.


If this isn’t the election where third parties break through in a major way, they probably never will. The significant hurdles they have to jump are problems that need to be discussed more widely. But for now: come on America, invite the third parties to your birthday. You just might like them.