Friday, October 19, 2012

Third Parties Are Our Friends . . .

October 19, 2012, 9:50 a.m.

. . . and Need Not Be Threat to Major Parties

Say hello to Gary Johnson, once the Republican governor of New Mexico and currently the Libertarian Party candidate for president. He's no relation, and I won't be voting for him. But I'm glad he'll be on my Iowa ballot November 6, and you should be, too.

Nor are the Libertarians the only ones to join Governor Romney and President Obama. We'll also have the choice of the Constitution Party (Virgil Goode and James Clymer), Socialist Workers Party (James Harris and Alyson Kennedy), Party for Socialism and Liberation (Gloria LaRiva and Stefanie Beacham), and the Green Party (Jill Stein and Cheri Honkal). (Jerry and Jim Litzel will also appear, having been nominated by petition.)

Some of these third party candidates will be holding their own 90-minute debate, hosted by Larry King, Tuesday night [Oct. 23] at 8:00 p.m. CT -- the night after the last of the three major parties' presidential debates -- albeit only streaming over the Internet rather than broadcast to an audience of millions. Editorial, "Third-Party Debate Will Be Educational, Informative," Iowa City Press-Citizen, October 19, 2012, p. A7. Watch. It promises to be more informative and entertaining than what we've seen from Obama and Romney. Go to

This blog entry advances two propositions: (1) We, as voters and American citizens, have benefited from, and therefore should welcome and encourage the participation of third parties in our political system. (2) The two major parties, now virulent opponents of third parties, would actually improve their odds if they would support a little reform called "instant runoff voting" (IRV) -- a win-win-win for major parties, third parties, and every American.

Why Third Parties Are Our Friends

True democracy has almost always been resisted by those in power. Most of those said to be the fathers of our democratic system, those who drafted the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, agreed with John Jay that, “Those who own the country, should run it.”

It is a view still widely held today by those in power.

As the 19th Century New York City political Boss William Tweed is credited with having said, “I don’t care who does the electing just so long as I do the nominating.”

If there are only two political parties those who control those parties’ purse strings can maintain their control of the nation by continuing to do the nominating.

The opposition to third parties by “those who own the country” is understandable. For it is third parties that have brought the American people most of the political and social progress we enjoy today –- much of which has come at the expense of the wealthy. That kind of progress was fought at every turn by those controlling the two major parties, often with the aid of local police and national guard in ways that left demonstrators injured, bleeding -- and often dead.

Ultimately one or the other of the two parties would adopt the proposal of a third party as its own, but only at the eleventh hour when its failure to do so would have seriously harmed the party’s political power and influence.

Third parties are a proud tradition in America -- and especially in Iowa's early history.

After the Civil War the Democratic Party came to be controlled by big business and the wealthy. It didn't do much for poor farmers. Disenchanted Democrats organized the People's Party.

By 1912 many Republicans were disgusted with big business control of their party. Those dissidents formed the Progressive Party.

James B. Weaver of Iowa was a third party nominee for president in 1892.

It turns out that most of the progress in this country has been opposed by both of the major parties. It has come about only when third parties have pushed the agenda and picked up enough popular support that they could no longer be ignored.

That's how we got regulation of banks and railroads, a progressive income tax, the eight-hour workday, direct popular election of U.S. senators, workers' compensation, and limitations on child labor. Yes, it is third parties we must thank for the women’s right to vote, antitrust controls over the worst of corporate abuses, the minimum wage, the fact that we’re not all working weekends, safety in the workplace, workers’ right to organize and bargain with employers, safe foods and medicines, social security, civil rights -– the list goes on. (See, e.g., the outline notes of Professor Donald R. Shaffer, University of Northern Colorado.)

So you can see why “those who own the country,” and today control both major political parties, would want to do all they can to prevent this kind of agitation and progress, and why I say that "third parties are our friends."

Opposition to Third Party Electoral Reforms
and Why Instant Runoff is Everyone's Answer

Both parties, and those who fund them, oppose at every turn any and all reforms that would permit more third party participation. The so-called Presidential Debates Commission is in fact an exclusive club for Democrats and Republicans, who have for the most part successfully prevented the American people from ever seeing third party alternatives to their nominees. They even oppose proposals that would eliminate the threat to them of what they persist in calling “spoilers.”

(Both parties, with their sense of entitlement to exclude all others from the political process, have the chutzpah to characterize anyone with the nerve to think they can also run for public office -- without the major parties’ permission -- as a “spoiler.”)

Because Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) can (a) eliminate "spoilers," (b) thereby helping the major parties win elections, while (c) also helping third parties to be viable, there's no reason not to adopt this reform.

How does IRV work? How does it help third parties? How does it help the major parties?

Here's how IRV works.

Our present system means a candidate can win without a majority of the votes; whoever gets the most votes wins, even if it's less than 50%. With IRV, the winner will have, and must have, something over 50%.

With our present system everyone can only vote once, and the votes are only counted once. Those who vote for a (usually losing) third party candidate never get a chance to say which of the two leading candidates they would prefer -- and therefore neither of the two leading candidates gets credit for what would have been third party voters' second choices. With IRV, each voter may vote for only one candidate if they wish; but they also have the option of ranking candidates, and indicating which would be their second choice if their first choice can't make it. If no candidate gets over 50% when first choice votes are counted, voters' second choices are considered until a candidate emerges with a majority of the votes.

Let's assume that those voting Libertarian prefer the Libertarian candidate to either Romney or Obama. Those voting Socialist Workers prefer their candidate. (Those whose first choice is Obama or Romney may vote only once, and only for their first choice.) But let's also make the inaccurate assumption, just for purposes of this discussion, that each of the third parties voters' have a second choice as well. If their first choice can't win the Libertarian voters would vote for Romney and the Socialist Worker Party members would vote for Obama.

Under the present system, both the third party members, and those affiliated with the two major parties, have to recognize that -- when the election is close -- those who vote for their favorite third party candidate may, thereby, contribute to the defeat of the major party candidate who would have been their second choice. Moreover, the "winner" is more likely to win with less than 50% of the total votes cast. In our example, let's say Obama gets 48% of Iowans' votes, Romney 44%, the Libertarian 5% and the Socialist Workers' candidate 3%.

IRV enables third party members to designate both their first and their second choice. Using our numbers, above, the first place votes are counted, and split 48-44-5-3. With IRV, at that point the candidate with the fewest first place votes (Socialist Workers) is dropped from contention -- but the second choices of those who voted for the eliminated candidate are now registered as first place votes for their second choice: Obama. The first place votes are then counted for a second time. Once the 3% Socialist Workers second choice votes for Obama are added to the 48% votes for Obama, it results in a 51-44-5 split, Obama has a majority, and is declared the winner.

Suppose our numbers were reversed: 48-44-3-5 (3% Libertarian, 5% Socialist Workers). No one has a majority. Libertarians have the fewest first place votes and are eliminated. Their second choice votes become first choice votes for Romney. But that still leaves no one with a majority: 48-49-3. Once again the candidate with the fewest first place votes is eliminated -- the Socialist Workers' candidate. Those voters' second choice (Obama) becomes their first choice, and following what is now the third count we have a 51-49 split.

Now here's one for the Romney supporters. Suppose the first vote count shows 47% for Obama, 46% for Romney, 2% Socialist Workers, 5% Libertarian. Under the present system the election's over; Obama wins Iowa's electoral votes. Can you now calculate what happens with IRV? That's right. The Socialist Workers' candidate is eliminated, and Obama picks up their 2%, making the new split 49% Obama, 46% Romney, 5% Libertarian. Obama is close to 50%, but there's still no winner; no one has over 50%. So we count the votes a third time. This time the Libertarian candidate is eliminated, throwing his votes to Romney, who now has 51% to Obama's 49%. Romney's declared the winner.

In other words, for the foreseeable future third parties will probably never win the White House, with or without IRV. The two major parties need have no fear of that. IRV will sometimes benefit the Republicans and sometimes the Democrats, but it will always produce a much better reflection of voters' actual preferences. Those who are more inclined toward the policies and proposals of a third party can indicate that with their vote -- while also selecting their second choice between the two most likely to win.

Still not clear? Like a 3-minute video from FairVote? Here it is:

Why IRV is a Win-Win-Win

Why is this a win for the major parties? Because they no longer need to worry about "spoilers." They will not only get the votes of those who view their candidate as their first choice, they will also pick up the votes of those for whom their candidate is a second choice.

Why a win for the public? Because we will have the more robust discussion of the issues brought about by a greater diversity of views. We will be offered a choice of candidates in addition to "the least worst alternative" from the two major parties. There will likely be more popular interest in politics in general and voting in particular. It will give us a more finely tuned opportunity to let the two major parties know where we stand than we reveal by just choosing between the two of them. It will come closer to a national poll of how we feel about a variety of issues and policies.

And why a win for the third parties, even if it's still unlikely any one of their candidates will live in the White House? States require third parties to obtain a designated percentage of votes cast, or names on petitions, in order to retain their status as a "party" entitled to be represented on future ballots. That's tough to do under current rules. There are many proposals to remedy this problem, but Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) is one obvious example. They will be able to attract more votes once people can vote both their hearts and their heads. It will help them to build membership, raise money, and attract more media attention.

To see a list of countries and cities where IRV is used, here and abroad, click here. For more on democratic, innovative, alternative voting systems see, e.g., the resources of the Center for Voting and Democracy.

# # #

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Thank you for writing this excellent article! I've forwarded or "shared" it various places. Here's a response from the usually curmudgeonly social media/video guru of the national Green media committee. I noted that it's not impossible that in some states there may be legitimate interest in something like IRV - he is in New York, where there is really only one party; in Iowa, we have two parties with nearly the same membership numbers, plus a large chunk of "others" with the same size membership. So, maybe there is a vague "threat" of potential spoilers that makes the legislature a little more open to considering IRV -

Nicholas Johnson former FCC Commissioner? I've loved his thinking writing since the '70 when I studied communications law.

I rarely see the extended argument addressed though.

Typical response is that "until" we get IRV we're stuck with the current system.
No one explains what need be done to get there and why it hasn't happened.

Major parties don't want IRV because it's a major disrupter to the patronage system. Losing is "less costly" than the lose of patronage.

Therefore the best vehicle is to do enough damage where the lose of elections results in enough lost patronage that the alternative looks better. Not an easy thing to do of course.