Two’s Company, Three’s a Crowd in U.S. Elections

We are staring down the barrel of one of the ugliest general elections for president of our lifetime, and many of us are wondering about our lack of choice. Like it or not, we Americans have just two parties that have elected all of our presidents since 1860, and they each put up one candidate.

So it follows that about a year ago, 20 candidates running for president each chose one of these two parties, whether they liked that party or not.

On the Republican side, 17 candidates with disparate policy objectives shoe-horned themselves into the Grand Old Party. As the GOP primaries progressed, political pundits divided the bunch into three “lanes” (establishment, conservative values, and change). In most countries these lanes would be called something a bit more common — “political parties.” But in the U.S., there was nowhere else for these candidates to go. Because of the archaic system we use to elect our leaders, only two parties stand a chance.

While not known quite as much for party discipline historically, the Democrats managed to keep their “lanes” to two and their candidates to three. Senator Bernie Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, decided that he had to run as a Democrat, and entered the fray to join more mainstream hopefuls, Hillary Clinton and Martin O’Malley.

From the very start, Bernie Sanders on the left, and Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Donald Trump, and Ben Carson on the right, were significant candidates in popularity. But they were not viewed as standard bearers of the Democratic or Republican party labels under which they respectively ran. Both of the parties were thus stuck with “misfits” in their midst.

Party leaders too struggled with the fit. Reince Priebus first assumed that the RNC country-club-like rules—byzantine state-by-state delegate counts and bound/unbound rules—would ultimately prevail in delivering an establishment outcome. Or worst case, Priebus may have assumed that the RNC Rules Committee could change those rules to get there. This early bravado steadily drained from the RNC Chairman just as it did from the establishment’s top candidates—Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and John Kasich. A tortured Priebus in early May seemed to finally accept Donald Trump as the at least temporary new face of the GOP. Trump had benefited from plurality wins in a fractured field and hijacked the party whose leadership had tried unsuccessfully to expel him. The result was a divided party on display at its national convention in Cleveland in July.

On the left, Sanders supporters always felt that DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz and her party cronies were treating Bernie like the crazy uncle up in the attic, despite a thin veneer of impartiality. Few of them were therefore surprised when emails emerged from Wikileaks corroborating that the fix was in. It was the icing on the cake whose foundation was Superdelegates—the party elite that committed to Hillary early, and meant to send a “wink” to the party’s voters of the preferred establishment candidate. Unlike the GOP, the Democrats managed to nominate their party standard bearer even if evidence of a rigged game left the party struggling to merge Sanders’s supporters with Clinton’s.

Why do we insist on cramming such a wide spectrum of candidates into two parties? Is it because we want only two choices in November? Is it because the Constitution limits us to two main parties? (Hint: It doesn’t.) Is it because additional parties and independents are just not as attractive as the two we have?

No, the reason we confine a spectrum of candidates to just two parties is that we have a system that is structurally flawed–unfit to accommodate more than that. Now don’t get me wrong—other names and parties will in fact be on our November ballot. With thick skin, Green and Libertarian party nominees Jill Stein and Gary Johnson, respectively, are fighting that tide. But they are now bashed almost daily as “spoilers” by the media and by Trump and Clinton surrogates. That message will get more shrill as November 8 approaches–“a vote for Gary Johnson is a vote for Clinton” and “a vote for Jill Stein is a vote for Trump.” Democratic and Republican operatives can agree on this–additional candidates must be bashed to a low single-digit result so that the two-party balance of power is not overly disrupted.

How did we manage to hamstring ourselves so? Our system says “most votes wins,” period—no matter the field of candidates. This plurality (or “first past the post”/FPTP) voting system works just fine for two candidates. But for three or more? Not so much. Two’s company and three’s a crowd in plurality winner elections, which is almost all of them in the United States. As our system exists today, you cannot “vote sincerely” outside the two main parties without possible negative consequences. If you vote for the person you like most, you may help the person that you like the least. We are often forced to vote based on our fears, not on our hopes.

So our system gives us the following vicious cycle:

  1. We don’t like to vote outside the two main parties out of fear of wasting our vote, or worse (just ask a 2000 Ralph Nader voter in Florida);
  2. Capable candidates outside the two parties fear spoiling and don’t run (see: Bloomberg, Michael); and
  3. Lo and Behold we regularly have just two choices that have a real chance of winning.

Look around. America’s archaic voting system now lags behind the rest of the world.  According to International IDEA, of the 34 OECD member countries, all but three (the U.S., Canada, and the UK) have moved past the plurality/“first past the post” system for the bulk of their elected offices (a point recently made by Kristen Eberhard in a well-written Sightline Institute piece on a very similar topic).  Canada is showing some commitment nationally in 2016 to move beyond FPTP.

As simple as it sounds, we would have a wider array of choices if we used runoff elections (or instant runoff elections—also called ranked choice voting). These produce a majority (>50%) outcome and remove the spoiler effect.

France has a two-round runoff for president and for their National Assembly. Courtesy of Wikipedia, their 2012 presidential election results are illustrative:

French presidential election summary

Five candidates for president garnered more than 10% of the vote—no spoilers due to a second round whenever the first round produces no majority winner. France’s National Assembly, which also uses a two-round system (runoff elections) to elect its members, has six parties with significant representation–more than 10 seats each–as of their 2012 election results. Can we even imagine this sort of party diversity in our state houses and in Washington?

With a better voting system in the U.S., our November presidential ballot might include an array of choices as follows:

Ted Cruz, Conservative Values Party
Bernie Sanders, Democratic Socialist Party
Hillary Clinton, Democratic Party
Jill Stein, Green Party
Michael Bloomberg, Independent
Gary Johnson, Libertarian Party
John Kasich, Republican Party
Donald Trump, Trump Party

Likewise, with better elections in the U.S. generally, support for independents and other parties would be meaningful, not shoved to the low-single-digit corners as they are now. They would be parties with representation in our state houses and in Washington.

The need for more viable parties is a pretty easy case:

  • The system that has given us just two parties (with elected representation) seems to be working for fewer and fewer of us (43 percent identify as independents);
  • Our candidates are being jammed into parties that don’t share their values or policy goals;
  • Parties can behave like country clubs—making up rules as they go along—and the party elite can determine their candidates however they please; and
  • What is more American than competition? Just like two bad Cable TV providers in your town is not enough, two viable choices for an office are not enough.  Meaningful competition is needed.

The two main parties have feathered their nests with many other tools to suppress third parties and independents–ballot access laws, debate access rules, campaign finance laws that favor parties over independents, gerrymandering, etc. The list goes on, but the root of the problem is the basic “two’s company, three’s a crowd” aspect of a system that allows a non-majority outcome.

(T)he reason we confine a spectrum of candidates to just two parties is that we have a system that is structurally flawed–unfit to accommodate more than that.

Changing a broken system is hard, and—short of “Constitution 2.0” (with our dysfunction, never say never)—will have to be done incrementally, state by state. Most promising currently is a referendum initiative in Maine that would implement ranked choice voting (instant runoffs) statewide. State non-partisan “Top Two” initiatives—already in place in California, Washington, and Louisiana–seem to be gaining popularity. Iterating further, some reform advocates in California talk of changing its Top Two primary to “Top Four” or “Top Five”–advancing more candidates from the primary and using ranked choice voting to sort out the November winner. While some approaches would go farther (see: proportional representation–very common internationally) to put more parties in office, runoffs and and ranked choice voting (or both) are realistic reforms now, and they would restore majority outcomes and remove a significant barrier to additional parties and choice.

There is a decent chance that our election on November 8 will prove disastrous. Picture a 45% popular vote winner–the “least-worst” of two dramatically unpopular candidates–who reaches 270 (a majority of electoral votes is easily possible with a less-than-majority popular vote overall because a plurality is sufficient in each state’s award of electoral votes).

With today’s polarization, whether it’s Trump or Clinton, the anger from the masses may be historic.

Let’s figure a way to channel that sure-to-come anger and frustration on November 9 toward fixing a broken system. Until we do, the structural flaws in our system will continue to doom independents and additional parties, and saddle us with two choices–sometimes both bad.