The Two-party System Is Rigged, But It’s Not Against You

There is a lot of discontent with the two-party system that nominated two of the most disliked candidates in recent history. It is very frustrating to choose the lesser-of-two-evils in the voting booth when we are accustomed to an overabundance of choices from the cereal aisle to online dating apps. Currently polls put the third party vote (Libertarian Party and Green Party) at 7-14%, mark, far above their collective vote share in 2012 (under 2%). While this level of support is not the greatest in recent history, Ross Perot received 18.9% of the popular vote in 1992, it is enough to make a difference in many states. While it may feel good to vote for a candidate you believe in, I argue that third party voting does not advance the goals many third-party voters aim to achieve. There are ways to limit the real problems of representation that trouble third-party voters, but there is no perfect system of elections. 

Although an increasing number of voters have become consistently liberal or conservative in their policy preferences in recent years, about 4 out of 5 Americans have some opinions that cross ideological lines, according to the Pew Research Center. In my own research about how citizens navigate the contemporary media environment to find political information I encountered many who were not well described by a simple red or blue label. They cared about corruption, animal welfare, and international policies that impacted specific nations they had ties to, all of which don’t fall squarely to one party.

However, having only two major parties is the best possible system given that the vast majority of our elections are winner-take-all. Having only two parties ensures (with some complexities related to the electoral college that apply only to the presidency) that the candidate with the most votes also has the vote of the majority of the electorate. This is how the system is “rigged” and it is a really big deal in a democracy, which relies on popular support as the basis of its legitimacy to govern. 

Therefore, in practice this means that a lot of voters will have to hold their noses when they vote for the least-disliked candidate. Very few candidates can gain the strong and fervent support of the majority of the electorate, which in this election is likely to be about 65 million of the approximately 130 Americans who will likely decide to vote. The burden of the nearly inevitable mismatch between voter preferences and parties is borne by voters in our two-party system. In many other countries, such as the Netherlands where I lived for almost 3 years, voters can choose from a wide array of parties, from the centrist traditional parties to a variety of issue-based parties like the Partij voor de Dieren (Party for the Animals). Voters can come fairly close to matching their preferences if they choose to undertake the substantial burden of determining the positions of all parties, but it is not a winner-take-all system. After the vote, the negotiations among the parties begin. It is the outcome of the negotiations between parties who must compromise with each other to form a coalition representing the majority of the electorate that determines the direction of the country.

Perhaps this is a better system, perhaps not. There are less drastic options for reform such as runoff elections, and many more (see the Electoral Reform Society of the UK). It would take a constitutional amendment to change the electoral system at the federal level. State and local systems, however, are less immune to change. If election reforms are successful at lower levels it could lead to the possibility of change at the federal level. Advocating for such changes has the possibility of allowing more voices to be heard in our elections.

Many third party voters know all of this, and simply see their vote a way to protest the major parties. Media scholar Clay Shirky argues forcefully against the concept of a protest vote, saying “it doesn’t matter what message you think you are sending, because no one will receive it… the Republicans did not become notably friendlier to urban workers after [James] Weaver, nor did the Democrats become more notably anti-corporate from the perceived threat of [Ralph] Nader.”

So, if you have to “hold your nose” while you vote this year please hold your head high. It is the right thing to do for our democracy within the election system we have. If the two-party system gets under your skin it is better to advocate for electoral reform starting at the local level, or work for the issue you are passionate about than to opt-out of the imperfect system we have by voting third party.

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