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Historic year for Third Party and Independent movements in the United States

by Damon Eris, published

Though the mainstream political press has naturally focused on the stinging Democratic losses and sweeping Republican gains in last week's elections, 2010 has proven to be an historic year for third party and Independent politics in the United States. 

One of the primary motifs in media coverage of this year's elections has been the public’s deep discontent with both the Democratic and Republican parties.  In poll after poll, record numbers of Americans opted to identify themselves as Independents rather than Democrats or Republicans, and consistently stated their desire for third party and Independent alternatives.  This dynamic undoubtedly affected the political calculus of the many third party and Independent political hopefuls who threw their hats into the ring in 2010.  According to Eric Ostermeier, a research associate at the Humphrey Institute's Center for the Study of Politics and Governance, there were more third party and independent candidacies for the US House in the 2010 election cycle than in any midterm election since 1934.  In a study of gubernatorial races reaching back to the turn of the twentieth century, Ostermeier found that third party gubernatorial candidates in 2010 rivaled those of 1994 for the strongest showing over the past 75 years since the Great Depression.  

Voters in Rhode Island made history last week when they elected Lincoln Chafee to be the state’s first Independent governor.  As the only Independent governor in the nation, Chafee is now among the most high-profile Independents in elected office, along with NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Senators Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Bernie Sanders of Vermont.  Voters in the northeast actually came quite close to electing two Independents for governor.  In Maine’s gubernatorial race, the late surge in support for Independent candidate Eliot Cutler was not enough to close the gap between him and the Republican front-runner, Paul LePage, who beat Cutler by less than two percentage points.   

Though no third party or Independent candidates were elected to the US House last week, it is possible that Lisa Murkowski will be declared the winner of Alaska’s election for US Senate.  After losing the Republican primary election to challenger Joe Miller, the incumbent Murkowski waged an aggressive campaign to retain her seat as an Independent write-in candidate for the office.  The official count and verification of the write-in ballots is set to begin today.  Just over 40% of ballots in the race were cast for a write-in candidate, compared to 35.2% for the Republican Miller and 23.4% for Democrat Scott McAdams.  If Murkoswki proves victorious, there will be three Independents in the US Senate.  

Independent candidates for state legislature were far more successful than their federal counterparts.  According to Richard Winger of Ballot Access News, Independents were elected or re-elected to the legislature in upwards of ten states: Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Maine, North Carolina, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Tennessee, and Vermont.  An Independent write-in candidate for state legislature in Colorado may also have won her race, but the official results of the count have yet to be declared.  Winger underscores the historic nature of these results, writing:

     “Whether this list ultimately contains 9 states or 10 states, it appears more states elected independents to state legislatures this year than in any previous year in at least sixty years.”  

In California, no third party or Independent candidates were elected to statewide office, US House, the State Senate or the State Assembly.  It is worth noting, however, that Green Party candidates did win elections to a number of local and non-partisan offices in the state, including that of mayor in both Marina City and Richmond. Nonetheless, according to a study from earlier this year by the National Institute on Money in State Politics, 392 third-party candidates sought statewide office or positions in the California state legislature between 2000 and 2009 – and none won.  One potential explanation for this state of affairs is that, as a percentage of registered voters, there are relatively few Independents in the state. But their numbers are growing.  Indeed, voters who do not identify with any political party are among the fastest-growing segments of California’s electorate.  In 1998, only 14% of Californians declined to state a party affiliation.  This year, that number reached 20%.  In Rhode Island, on the other hand, 48% of registered voters are unaffiliated with any party.  The third party and Independent movements have a long way to go in California, but there is positive movement among the electorate.  

According to a projection by the Associated Press, roughly 90 million Americans voted across the country in last week’s general election.  That is a relatively high turnout for a mid-term election year, but it still only represents about 42% of all registered voters.  In other words, there were more Americans who chose not to vote than there were who voted for Democrats and Republicans combined!  Chronically low voter turnout in the United States represents a veritable crisis of democracy and indicates a crisis of confidence in the major parties.  

How can Americans be adequately represented if the majority simply do not vote?  But what if they do not vote because they are not adequately represented by Democrats or Republicans?   Perhaps they're waiting for better options.