The Two-Party System Is Rigged! So Let's Fix It
By Adam Simpson
The two biggest political parties in the United States are fielding the two most unpopular candidates in history in 2016. However, the prevailing political narrative routinely tells American voters that voting outside those two options is either a wasted vote or—through the transmutative properties of two-party domination—actually a vote for the “wrong” two-party powerhouse. Conservatives are told that a vote for Libertarian Gary Johnson is a vote for the villainous Democrat Hillary Clinton; liberal voters are told that a vote for Green Party candidate Jill Stein is a vote for the fascistic Republican Donald Trump.[i] Such criticisms of third party alternatives are often meant as the end of a conversation, but they belie deeper problems with the current system that warrant the beginning of a discussion. If you add two candidates that are widely despised together with the regular castigation of third party options, the outcome of that equation is a poor excuse for democracy. The United States currently has an electoral system that is radically opposed to any plurality greater than two, and it’s time to change that.
“The system is rigged!”
This is inarguably true. Within the context of the electoral college, forty-eight states, as well as the District of Columbia, currently have a “winner-take-all” system whereby all the delegates of a given state are given over to the winner of the popular vote, unceremoniously discarding votes for other parties. This means that when Republicans get 51% of the vote and Democrats get 49%, the Republican candidate gets 100% of the delegates. We often here condemnations of populism as "tyranny of the majority;" there is no better example than 51% of votes counting for 100% of the delegates. For third party candidates, the odds of outmaneuvering establishment titans are nearly insurmountable—to say nothing of of the millions of votes made meaningless by this system. Maine and Nebraska are the two outliers whose delegates are pledged to the winner of the popular vote on a district by district basis. It seems obvious that Main and Nebraska’s Congressional District Method would be more fair and representative of voters, but then there is the nagging issue of egregious gerrymandering that is used to concentrate votes for one of the major parties or the other, eliminating competition—this is without question a dirty game played by Republicans and Democrats alike.
Though the electoral college is unpopular and I sympathize with those who call for its dissolution, a constitutional amendment to abolish it—perhaps a worthy long-term goal—could potentially take years to organize and accomplish. A more feasible strategy for repairing the system would be to confront the gerrymandering dilemma and make the Congressional District Method function free from political corruption. The most straightforward way to repair often absurd gerrymandered districts is for independent commissions to be put in charge of redistricting in a transparent process that removes district maps from the reach of political horse trading. Some states have pursued independent commissions to oversee redistricting, but I can see no reason why this shouldn’t be the default. Determining voter districts should not be left to the mercy of bipartisan conflicts of interest, as a matter of law.
These are but a few obstacles. Third party candidates are also confronted with the dizzying process for getting on state ballots. A national system makes more sense, an idea so egregiously opposed to states’ rights that Ron Paul supported the idea as a libertarian candidate. Then there is the challenge of exposure. Third parties are forced to compete with the Republican and Democrat titans for air time, and they are required to poll at 15% in order to gain admittance to presidential debates and engage with their political peers. In order for both third party alternatives to appear at a presidential debate, Clinton and Trump would need to poll as low as 35% each with the remainder split between Johnson and Stein with no undecideds. This is an absurd hurdle to achieve.
One of the biggest obstacles toward transitioning to a more pluralistic political system is that the two parties currently in power have virtually nothing to gain by opening up the political system to other competitors. However, there is an argument that outlets for viable competitors might be better for party continuity. 2016 has been defined largely by insurgency campaigns, whether it’s Donald Trump’s vulgar, far-right populism or Bernie Sanders’ abandonment of his independent political identity to very successfully challenge centrist Democrats from the progressive left.
Trump’s conquest may very well be the end of the Republican party, with numerous conservatives abandoning the party for the libertarian Johnson or declaring their support for Clinton. Furthermore, the Republican National Convention was plagued by the absence of former Republican Presidents as well as presidential nominees. Republicans even had to play damage control following Ted Cruz’s speech calling for conservatives to “vote their conscience,” an easily deciphered code translating to “never Trump.” This is to say nothing of the “Tea Party” insurgency that has dragged Republicans to the far right over the past decade.
To a lesser degree, the Democrats appear to be confronted with a contingent of more progressive supporters that are refusing to vote for their presumptive nominee Clinton. This faction has grown in severity since recently leaked emails—no matter any alleged nefarious source—revealed the lengths to which the Democratic National Committee attempted to sabotage and subvert Sanders’ chances. Democrats are hoping that the threat of an authoritarian presidency under Trump will win voters away from allegedly impractical votes for Stein and other alternatives, but “never Trump” is a feeble argument for a Clinton presidency that rode to success on a rigged game.
Viable alternatives to the two behemoths of American politics could have averted both parties’ crises. The voters that were “outside the mainstream” of Republicans and Democrats may have been more enticed to vote in alternative primaries with these insurgency candidates thus drawn to elsewhere. But as it stands, no one can fault Sanders or Trump for playing the only game in town. Plurality isn’t just good for American democracy. It’s good for Republicans and Democrats too.
Voters should never be chastised by party loyalists against “voting their conscience.” It’s time to open up the political system to a plurality of voices and debate. If it is pragmatism rather than conscience that compels a citizen to cast their vote for a two-party titan, the dilemma should not end on Novemeber 8. Representative democracy is supposed to be a bout collective decision making, and Americans should not be content with ineffective and distorted represtation.
[i] For the sake of transparency, I will admit that I intend at this point to vote for either Green Party Candidate Jill Stein or Transhumanist Party Candidate Zoltan Istvan. Also let it be clear that while I do not believe Hillary Clinton is any more or less “villainous” than your garden variety politician, I do in fact consider Donald Trump to be a fascist.