The United States is two-party system, meaning that in an election, one of two parties will have the best chance of winning almost every time. This has been true since the birth of this country’s political parties when the first two parties, the Democratic-Republicans and the Federalists, vied for public support. This does not mean that there aren’t other parties competing in the electoral arena. Third parties have sprouted up from time to time and have influenced electoral outcomes at the federal, state, and local levels.
However, victories have been few and far between for many third parties in the United States. This is due to in part to formal rules and informal practices that hinder the chances of a third party succeeding. A formal rule deals with ballot access. In order to gain access to a ballot, third parties must gather an inordinate amount of signatures on petitions in comparison to their major party counterparts. These rules differ between states and have been created by members of the state legislature who, alas, belong to one of the two major parties. An excellent website that describes how ballot access laws work in the United States can be found at Richard Winger’s Ballot Access News site. Another example of a formal rule is one that is set up by the federal government during the Presidential elections. In order for third party Presidential candidates to receive federal funding for their Presidential bid, the third party candidate from the previous Presidential election must have received 5% of the popular vote. Five percent also ensures equal ballot access protections for third party candidates (i.e. automatic ballot access). However, no third party candidate has received more than 5% since Ross Perot in 1996. No third party candidate received 5% in 2012. Libertarian Gary Johnson received 1% of the popular vote. Therefore, third party candidates in 2016 already start their Presidential bids at a ballot and monetary disadvantage.
An informal practice that stunts the growth of third parties is that our nation’s history has always been a two-party system. It is what the public is used to. From the Democratic-Republicans vs. Federalists to Democrats vs. Whigs and Democrats vs. Republicans, the country’s pedigree eliminates the need for third party involvement in the political process.
What can third parties do to compete on a somewhat level playing field?