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Third Party Learning to Thrive Under Top-Two Primary

by Steve Peace, published

Third parties and third-party candidates are accustomed to losing in America. Many of their leaders, in fact, like it that way. For them, it is more about getting attention than about genuinely affecting change.

For some, it's a conscious choice. For others, its just part of the strange psychology of defining their self worth by losing. Still others are savvy behind-the-scenes manipulators in league with their major party conspirators in an ongoing dance between Republicans and Democrats to produce plurality victories by strategically placing third-party names on ballots to siphon votes that presumably would otherwise fall to "Red" or "Blue" competitors.

But a funny thing is happening in the state of Washington, where the

Libertarian Party has shifted gears and begun to play the game to win. Out of the 12 party candidates running in the primary, 8 advanced to the November ballot.

Suddenly, one of the minor-party leaders has recognized that Washington and California have structured new electoral systems in which they can actually win rather than just whine.

California and Washington state have recently adopted nonpartisan, top-two primary systems which place all candidates on a single ballot. All voters, regardless of their party affiliation or non-affiliation, vote using the same ballot.

A nonpartisan system stands in contrast to partisan-based systems used in most states, where there is a separate primary election for each political party.

Under the traditional system, the purpose of the primary election is to elect party-loyal nominees to represent the party in the general election: a private purpose. Under a nonpartisan system, like "Top-Two," the purpose is to narrow the candidate field, regardless of party, to the top two vote-getters for the general election: a public purpose.



Under the traditional system, only one third-party candidate has won a seat in Congress in the last 60 years.

Yet, a common trope from many third-party activists over nonpartisan, top-two primaries is that, because only two candidates qualify for the general election, their party is often left without a candidate on the ballot. This ignores the reality that third-party candidates never win general elections under traditional systems because the media attention always revolves around the "credible" candidates that come from the two major parties.

As a consequence, third-party candidates are relegated to a "dark horse" status with little practical chance to take on the "machine." This does not even address the further reality that districts are almost always gerrymandered for the benefit of one of the two major parties.

But, under a top-two system, the dynamics change. Under these systems, if a third-party candidate qualifies for the general election, he or she is put in a head-to-head match-up against (most likely) a major party candidate. Therefore, the third-party candidate has "instant" credibility as the only alternative candidate.

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