Could the U.S. Move Beyond a Two-Party System?

Polls show that a high percentage of voters are dissatisfied with the 2016 presidential nominees of both major parties. And yet, as in past years, third parties have struggled to gain a foothold. In this lesson, students learn about U.S. election laws that make it difficult for third parties to emerge, and discuss reforms activists have proposed to give voters more choices.   


To the Teacher:

This lesson includes two student readings. The first reading looks at possibilities for third parties in the U.S. and why historically it has been difficult for them to gain a foothold. The second reading considers some possible changes to the electoral system that might make it easier for voters to elect politicians who reflect their beliefs, including open primaries and instant runoff voting. Discussion questions and an optional small-group discussion activity follow.


Reading 1:
Why Do We Have a Two-Party System?

Polls show that a high percentage of voters are dissatisfied with their major party choices in the 2016 presidential election (Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton).  And yet, as in past years, third parties have struggled to gain a foothold.  2016 third-party presidential candidates include Libertarian Party nominee Gary Johnson and Green Party nominee Jill Stein. 

Many other countries have parliamentary systems of government that are more open to third parties than the American system. In the United States, the Constitution structures elections in a way that favors large parties that can garner a majority of the vote in many districts. As journalist Waleed Shahid explains:

The reasons for why we haven’t seen an independent, third party emerge in the United States are not due to any lack of willpower, but are the result of deep structural roadblocks to forming a competitive third party.

Imagine you have 15% of the public on your side: do you stay outside the political system or start your own party? The answer has much less to do with what you want to do, but more to do with what kind of electoral system you find yourself in...

In a proportional representation system, as seen in much of the rest of the world, you get as many seats in parliament as you win a share of votes (i.e. 15% of the votes = 15% of the seats). It might make sense to start your own party to compete with the existing parties.

The U.S. political system does not allocate Congressional seats proportionally based on each party’s share of the national vote. Rather, we have a "winner-take-all" system that allocates one seat to Congress from each geographic district. In this system, a party that wins 15% of the vote in each district would not secure any representation in Congress at all. Instead, larger parties that gain higher percentages of voters would win all of the seats.  The winner-take-all system encourages smaller parties to align themselves with the major parties, which they may see as the only way to have influence.

Imagine a scenario in which 15% of the public supports your party. There are also two larger parties -- one has 40% support, and the other has 45%. Under the winner-take-all system, your party will not win anything on its own. But if your party merged with the 40% party, the new, combined party could attract 55% of the vote, and could therefore win the election. Your incentive to work with the larger party is clear.

Now imagine a different scenario: Your party has 55% support, while your the opposition has 45%. However, a faction of 15% within your party wants to split away. In this scenario, if the faction forms a third party, it will result in the opposition party winning. This is known as the "spoiler effect."

Reform advocate April Thibodeau describes the implications of the spoiler effect in the Maine Beacon:

[The two major parties remain dominant] because of the "spoiler effect" - when a third party candidate runs, they peel votes away from one side, potentially handing the election to the other side. After such a result, the third party will be under pressure to join with the closest major party, and voters won’t vote for a third party candidate as long as the memory of the last loss still smarts. Eventually voters forget, and will vote for a third party candidate again, only to get burned again.

Despite these barriers, hundreds of third parties have formed throughout U.S. history, in part because of voters’ persistent frustration with the two major parties. Economist Bruce Bartlett writes in Forbes:

[Barriers haven’t] stopped candidates from occasionally challenging the two-party monopoly, but none has ever made it to the White House. The most successful third-party candidate in history was Theodore Roosevelt in 1912, who got 27.4% of the popular vote and carried six states. The next most successful third-party candidate was Ross Perot in 1992. Although he got 18.9% of the popular vote, he carried no states.

Nevertheless, public opinion polls consistently show that a high percentage of Americans would like to have a third party. A CNN/Opinion Research poll in February [2016] found almost two-thirds of Americans favoring a third party in addition to the Republicans and Democrats.

Those who would like to see a greater range of ideological views represented in our political system face a clear challenge: how can they reform the electoral process to allow for viable third parties and allow voters to support third parties without becoming "spoilers"?

For discussion:

1.      How much of the material in this reading was new to you, and how much was already familiar? Do you have any questions about what you read?

2.      According to the reading, what is the difference between a proportional representation system and a winner-take-all system?

3.      Within the U.S. political system, how are small parties encouraged to join with larger parties? What is the potential downside of a third-party challenge?

4.      What do you think? Do you see your views represented by the two major parties? Would you like to see more perspectives represented in elections and in government?



Reading 2:
How could the system be reformed?

Would it be possible to change the U.S. electoral system in ways that might allow more robust third parties or expand the diversity of political viewpoints expressed during elections? Promoters of third parties must confront some significant barriers: Creating a parliamentary system at the national level with pure proportional representation would require significant amendments to the U.S. Constitution and a fundamental restructuring of our legislative process. That’s a tall order.

Reform advocates have offered a number of proposals to expand voters’ choices without switching to a full proportional representation system. Some of these reforms could be adopted at state and local levels.  In fact, some have already been implemented in localities in various parts of the country.

1.  Make it easier for candidates to get on the ballot

One basic reform would be to change ballot access laws to make it easier for third parties to get their candidates listed on ballots. Currently, candidates are often required to get tens of thousands of signatures to appear on the ballot. The Green Party, one of the more prominent U.S. third parties, describes on its website how current ballot access laws hinder third parties:

Our ballot access laws are so bad that even Democrats and Republicans can’t field candidates in quite a few races. However, these laws generally place far more restrictions on third parties.

Very few people are aware of the ballot access problem in the United States. Each state writes its own ballot access laws, even for federal office...

As recently as 1930, no state required more than 14,680 signatures for a new political party to get on the ballot.

Today, some states require huge numbers of signatures and/or votes for third parties to gain ballot access, while other states are much more reasonable. The laws vary enormously, not only in difficulty, but in the types of requirements they include, from state to state. This creates tremendous challenges for a third party trying to present an alternative and build an organization across the whole country.

Reducing the number of signatures needed for ballot access and standardizing the requirements across states would ease the burden on third parties.

Yet even if parties gain easier ballot access, voters would still be confronted with the "spoiler problem" when considering supporting a third-party candidate.

2.  Ranked Choice Voting (also called Instant Runoff  Voting) 

One reform that would eliminate spoilers is "ranked-choice voting," also known as "instant-runoff voting." In a July 2016 article, Professor Okla Elliott wrote in The Hill about the choices we would have in this year’s election under such a system:

We’ve heard that voting third party is throwing your vote away - or worse yet, helping to elect the candidate you disagree with most. So how do we move the conversation forward? How do we make it safe to vote for third-party candidates?

Few Americans have heard of ranked-choice voting, yet there are currently 11 American cities that use [it] to elect their mayor, city council, and other local officials - including major cities such as Berkeley, Cambridge, and Minneapolis. And a variation of ranked choice is used nationwide in Ireland, a small yet relatively densely populated country, and in Australia, one of the largest yet least densely populated nations on Earth.

There are several variations of ranked choice voting, some more complex than others, but the simplest form would have voters rank the candidates #1, #2, #3, and so forth when there are more than two candidates for a single position. For example, left-leaning voters might rank Green Party candidate Jill Stein as #1, Hillary Clinton #2, Gary Johnson #3, and Donald Trump #4.

If Stein does not receive the greatest number of votes, ballots cast for her would automatically shift to Clinton, and then if Clinton doesn’t get the greatest number of votes even with Stein’s votes added in, those initial Stein votes would then shift to Johnson. In this way, Green Party voters do not have to fear helping Trump win the election, yet they also do not have to begrudgingly ignore their deep-seated convictions and outright vote for Clinton.

Renowned economists Partha Dasgupta of the University of Cambridge and Eric S. Maskin of Harvard University concluded in their 2004 Scientific American article that "when more than two choices present themselves, voters should submit a ranking of candidates and that majority rule ... should determine the winner." They likewise conclude that ranked-choice voting offers "an accurate representation of the voters’ wishes" more so than any other voting system.

3.  Non-partisan Elections

Another reform that might loosen the hold of the two-party system is the use of "nonpartisan elections." In these elections, although candidates might identify their party sympathies in their campaign materials, party affiliation doesn’t actually appear on the ballot. St. Francis College President Frank Macchiarola, writing in the Gotham Gazette, made the case for nonpartisan elections:

In more than 80 percent of the nation’s largest cities, mayors are elected through nonpartisan elections — elections in which the candidates do not run on the Democratic or Republican or any other established party line, but as individuals. The cities where there are non-partisan elections include Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Detroit, Denver, and San Francisco. New York City is the exception....

The opportunity for citizens to choose freely and fairly those who represent them is at the core of democracy. Steps toward promoting democracy include encouraging greater participation of voters and a wider range of candidates, increasing the electorate’s knowledge of candidates and issues, and providing resources for those who seek public office. Nonpartisan elections may better complement and support these goals than the current partisan system....

At bottom, the issue is whether we continue to allow a small group of party officials to determine both who gets on the ballot and who can vote in the elections that matter or do we expand opportunity and access. This is not a matter of abstract "good government" principle, but rather a response to the increasing numbers of voters who feel left out of the process as it operates today.

Advocates of nonpartisan elections, such as Macchiarola, argue that this system allows a greater range of ideological diversity among candidates and decreases the importance of centralized parties in vetting prospective contenders. However, critics argue that giving voters less information about candidates (by withholding their party affiliation) means that fewer people will vote, and that incumbents with famous names are more likely to be reelected. They also argue that some voters may be inclined to discriminate based on the perceived ethnicity of a candidate’s name, absent other information.

All of the above changes - ballot access reform, ranked-choice voting, and nonpartisan elections - could be implemented at the local, state, or federal level. At the same time, achieving any of these reforms at a wide scale would likely require a large amount of organization from potential reformers to overcome entrenched interests within the two parties.

For discussion:

1.      How much of the material in this reading was new to you, and how much was already familiar? Do you have any questions about what you read?

2.      According to the reading, what is ranked choice voting? How does this system work?

3.      Commentators have noted a variety of pros and cons for nonpartisan elections. What are some of the potential benefits? What might be some negatives?

4.      What do you think? Which of these reforms might you support?

5.      Can you think of other ideas that might allow greater diversity of choices in our elections?

Optional Small Group Activity

Divide the class into groups of 4-6 students.  Give the groups 5 minutes to allow each person in the group time to respond to this question:

  • Do you think our electoral system should be reformed to allow for a wider range of candidates?  Why or why not? 

Next, give students 15 minutes to discuss each of the reform proposals (short of adopting a parliamentary system) described in the reading: easier ballot access, ranked-choice voting, and nonpartisan voting. Give students five minutes to consider each of the following questions:

  • What would be the advantages and disadvantages of each of these reforms? Discuss and review each proposal.
  • Which reform do you think would be the best - if we chose to reform the system at all? Why?
  • How do you think the 2016 presidential election might be different if we enacted this reform?

Give each group an additional 5 minutes to see if they can arrive at a consensus about a reform they support (or they may choose no reform), and to prepare three reasons to support their view, which they will share with the class. If students are unable to arrive at a consensus, ask them to be prepared to share the reasons for their different choices.

Reconvene the class and ask groups to share their choices and their reasoning.


- Research assistance provided by Will Lawrence.