Americans are unhappy with their choices in the upcoming Presidential election. Hillary Clinton, whose net favorability rating is -15.4,[i] is the least popular presidential candidate in the last 10 elections cycles save one:[ii] her opponent Donald Trump.[iii] Seeing this, some media outlets have speculated[iv] that this could be the election cycle in which we see the rise of a third party candidate. The relatively strong performance of Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson in national polls[v] gives some credence to this thought. That said, such a political upheaval is exceedingly unlikely because the two party system, while not codified in the Constitution, is reinforced by the structure of American democracy.
The United States uses a first-past-the-post voting system.[vi] Under this system, each voter selects one candidate from the list of those running, and the candidate that receives the most votes wins. This style of voting is familiar and straightforward, but it is neither the best nor the only way that elections can be run.
The issue with first-past-the-post voting stems from the fact that it encourages tactical, rather than ideological, voting. Savvy voters realize that a vote for the candidate that best aligns with their views is a vote wasted if that candidate is from a third party and has little chance of winning. Worse, a vote wasted robs an acceptable viable alternative of support.[vii] The situation is best summarized as follows: “all votes for anyone other than the runner up are votes for the winner”.[viii]
Given these conditions, the equilibrium is a political landscape where two parties dominate[ix] and voters are encouraged to vote strategically against the candidate they support the least, rather than for the candidate they support the most. One need only look at the current candidates on offer to see why this is troubling. One candidate is a lying xenophobe,[x] the other a national security threat,[xi] and neither seems likely to solve the nation’s looming fiscal crisis.[xii] There is no third choice.
Things do not have to be this way. A number of alternative voting systems[xiii],[xiv] exist that would not subvert our democracy, but rather enhance it. Common in each of these systems is that rather than select one person, voters rank candidates. A single ballot in one of these systems effectively encapsulates multiple rounds of runoff voting: candidates that receive the fewest votes are successively eliminated, and their individual votes are then transferred to other candidates according to each voters listed preference. The winner is the first candidate to receive majority support.
An alternative voting system would open the door for additional political parties to rise without directly harming the influence of the two existing mainstream parties. Voters would be free to vote for their first choice candidate, be they third party or otherwise, without harming their second choice. Meanwhile, Democrats and Republicans would be able to leverage their large existing coalitions[xv] into electoral success under the new system, at least at first. Parties would be held accountable by voters, no longer able to rely on their primacy in a two party system to stay in power.
Those who favor maintenance of the status quo point out that third parties have risen in this country before: The Republican Party is their favorite example. Citing the party of Lincoln, which rose to prominence over 160 years ago, only illustrates that these critics fail to appreciate the current plight of the American voter. When faced with two loathsome choices, voters need viable alternatives immediately; they cannot wait for a historically rare event. The current first-past-the-post voting system not only fails to provide such alternatives, it actively punishes those who seek them, and our nation suffers as a result.