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Third Parties Are the Real Midterm Victims

Guest Column C. Jason Seely

There has been much talk recently of the crisis the Democratic party finds itself in, and what steps it should take in order to retake Congress in the next election.

The real problem is not how the Democrats can win back a couple seats in the senate. The real problem is that we live in a representative system in which all the power is shared by only two parties, and too often in this system a choice between the two candidates is no choice at all. Third party opposition is effectively shut out of the debate by the rules of the game (i.e. the number of people that your message reaches is given by the size of your campaign fund), and literally shut out of the debates by the television networks or sponsors. We are thus forced to choose between two candidates, neither of which may be acceptable, so we use our vote to vote against the candidate we like the least. This is the real problem, since it is then the voters themselves who reinforce the idea that there are only two viable options in a race.

A very costly example of this is the last presidential election in which a third party candidate (Ralph Nader) was working for the five percent of the popular vote that would grant his party access to the televised debates in the next election. Nader failed to get five percent and everyone quickly labeled him a spoiler for taking votes away from Gore, thus giving Bush the election. I submit that Gore was the real spoiler. Gore was not a strong enough candidate to win a decisive victory and everyone knew this going into the voting booth. Many people who wanted to vote for Nader instead voted for Gore in an attempt to keep Bush out of office. In the end, their votes were doubly wasted. First, they didn’t keep Bush out of office; and second, there will be no legitimate third party opposition in 2004.

Another interesting example is this year’s Massachusetts gubernatorial race, where the three third party candidates together netted only five percent of the vote, and the Republican and Democrat split the rest of the votes fairly evenly. Carla Howell, whose campaign was centered on eliminating the state income tax and making government smaller, only managed to earn one percent of the vote.

This is interesting because the ballot question that she authored (to eliminate the state income tax) was only narrowly defeated, which could be an indication that there are many more people in Massachusetts who would have voted for her if they considered her a viable candidate.

The bottom line is that a two-party system does not foster real debate and is injurious to democracy. As voters we need to lend our support to whatever candidate we feel could do the best job. We should vote our conscience not because we naively believe that our long shot candidate might actually win, but because it is the only way to get real debates and real choices back into American politics.

C. Jason Seely is a gradate student in the Department of Physics.