Three's (Not) a Crowd
A viable third party would strengthen democracy

By The Crimson Staff
Published March 1st 2005 in The Harvard Crimson

The two-party system might work well for some of us, but it has failed millions of Americans, who feel that neither Republicans nor Democrats represent them. That an increasingly large sect of society is marginalized by the current system is appalling—and completely antithetical to the ideals of a healthy democracy. We should heed the recent call of Climenko Professor of Law Charles J. Ogletree to take a new look at the possibilities of third party politics.

True, the recent record of national third parties has been less than impressive. Local campaigns in some states, however, have yielded success stories, and we should welcome their methods in Massachusetts. A combination of instant runoff voting and “fusion” voting—which is soon set to come before the state legislature here—could ultimately make ours a much more vibrant democracy.

Ogletree’s call to action, delivered at the Institute of Politics last week, focused especially on the need of African-Americans for a third party. This could be an important step in the continuing struggle for equal rights. For years, Democrats have taken African-Americans for granted, and Republicans have had even less to offer. While we should hail encouraging signs within the parties, such as the emergence of Sen. Barack Obama D-Ill., a challenge to the two-party system could accelerate the pace of progress.

Of course, the need for such a challenge goes well beyond any one sector of the population. Polls have shown a widespread feeling of disillusionment in both major parties, with the impression that both are beholden to special interests and that there is little to distinguish one from the other. That is, except for the perceived character of the candidates, which is the only way many voters these days judge who to vote for. The two-party system can only continue to weaken participation in the electoral process.

But while Americans want alternative parties that do more than just “spoil” elections, third parties have failed to gain a lasting foothold almost anywhere in the nation. What could be done to open up new frontiers in the political landscape?

The “fusion” voting alternative works by allowing local third parties to have their own slate and, if they choose, to cross-endorse candidates from a major party or other small parties. This lets them build up a steady base of support and demonstrate that level of support each election, while avoiding the danger of a “wasted vote” that simply doesn’t count or, worse, that throws elections to one’s least desirable candidate.

Once widely practiced and legal across the U.S., fusion voting was banned by a majority of states for partisan reasons. It’s time to bring it back. The model has worked wonders in New York State, where the Working Families Party (WFP) is stirring up the state’s stagnant political scene. The WFP now attracts hundreds of thousands of votes from those left out in the cold by the major parties, from blue-collar workers who used to vote red to urban minorities who used to vote blue to suburban independents who otherwise might not vote.

Massachusetts is the next stop for fusion voting, and we give our enthusiastic support to a new bill, filed in December in the House of Representatives, proposing that the state lift its ban on the practice. Stronger third parties in Massachusetts would create better politics in a state where the entrenched power of a Democratic legislature and a Republican governor has held up progress on many issues. New parties could emerge alongside longtime minor parties, like the Libertarians and the Greens. They could help make local elections competitive again and bring more voters into the political process.

We also reiterate our call for a system of instant runoff voting, in which voters rank candidates instead of just voting for a single one. It works by eliminating the candidates with the fewest first-choice votes, giving their voters’ second-choice votes to the remaining candidates, and repeating the process until there are two candidates left—one of them able to claim a majority. The system has a proven track record everywhere from congressional nominations in Utah to the Undergraduate Council elections here at Harvard. The only barriers to its progress are the fears of the major parties.

The combination of fusion voting with instant runoff voting could only serve to expand the options available to citizens, enrich the content of political debate, and turn third parties from spoilers into innovators. It’s taken two parties to get us into the deadlock in which we find ourselves today. It may take three, four, or five to get us out—and it may take a new kind of politics to fulfill the promise of American democracy.