Can I Have A Third Party, Please?
If liberty and equality are chiefly to be found in democracy, they will be best attained when all persons alike share in government to the utmost. - Aristotle (384-322 BC)
by Rob Lafferty
Americans generally don’t vote much. Our voter turnout runs as low as half in a boring presidential election year and doesn’t even rise as high as two-thirds in an interesting one. In between those national elections, we’re lucky to get half the registered voters to cast a ballot, and we’ve dropped as low as one-third many places, many times.
In the 1960 presidential election, only 63 percent of the eligible voters in America actually did. When it comes to citizens exercising their civic duty, that’s the best we’ve done over the past fifty years.
We’re not alone. In the United Kingdom of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, voter turnout has dropped from 84 percent in 1950 to just 65 percent in 2010. Most of that decline has come during the last fifteen years.
Here in Oregon, we set a state record this year for the lowest ballot return ever in a presidential primary – a whopping 38 percent of the registered voters bothered to return a ballot that was mailed to them.
It was, in a sense, understandable. Republican and Libertarian challengers to the incumbent Democrat had already been chosen by the time voting season opened up here in the Northwest, so our primary votes were largely symbolic, a small gesture in the election process that didn’t really matter.
But there were other choices to be made on those ballots, decisions to be made at city, county and state levels that were decided by about one-third of the voters. That’s in a state where ballots arrive in mailboxes and can be returned for the price of a stamp, or dropped off for free in numerous locations.
There’s even a reasonable expectation that those ballots will be properly counted, which I find very encouraging these days.
Given how easy it is here, Oregon’s low rate of returns doesn’t bode well for states where you must go to a polling location, stand in line and use a not-so-state-of-the-art electronic machine to enter your vote into a digital system that is vulnerable to cyberhackers on every level.
If we want to actually live in a republic that governs by democracy, the more than 50 million citizens who are eligible to vote but don’t bother to register – many because they don’t like the choices available – need a reason to get in the game.
A winner-take-all system like ours doesn’t provide representation to everyone. When a candidate runs for office from a fixed platform of values and positions, the citizens who disagree with that platform will not be represented if that candidate wins. In a wildly diverse population, having only two very similar platforms to choose from leaves a lot of people with no hope of representation no matter which platform wins.
Since we’ll never move to a parliamentary system where each party is allotted representatives based on the percentage of votes they receive, we need to have more political parties that offer more choices.
Libertarians are on the presidential ballot in many states, but not all of them. They have a specific platform that appeals to about ten percent of voters, but seldom more. Other parties crop up in various state ballots as well, but they represent even fewer voters than the Libertarians.
About every other decade or so, a third-party presidential candidate has risen up and attracted enough of the electorate to have a slim chance of actually winning, but none of those campaigns evolved into a national organization that could break the Democrat/Republican stranglehold on governance.
America has a diverse population with multiple points of view regarding how a citizen-owned government should operate. Having a third or fourth active, viable voice in our national debate might encourage members of the non-voting citizenry to get involved. We might even reach a level where we can claim to be a legitimate democracy.
If nothing else comes from that, at least our elections would be more interesting…
Rob Lafferty, a former editor and news reporter in California, Hawaii and Oregon, now lives in the deep woods of Oregon's Coast Range. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org