The Republican and Democratic primaries are raging on, but Jill Stein could care less. "Now is the time to support a serious, independent, left candidate for Presidential in 2016" says a statement from her campaign. Stein, a physician by practice, pulled in over 469,000 votes in 2012 as the candidate for the Green Party, America's fourth largest political party. She is now seeking the nomination to be the Green presidential candidate once more, and is "committed to qualifying for public matching funds" in the primary in order to accomplish that goal. Doing so would mean receiving matching funds from the government for the small campaign donations she receives: if someone were to donate $10 to her primary campaign, she'd receive an additional $10 from a fund ran by the U.S. Treasury. This would be an enormous win for her campaign. In order to qualify, however, the Federal Election Commission requires that a candidate "raise in excess of $5,000 in each of at least 20 states" in order to show that they have "broad-based public support." This means that she needs to raise at least $100,000 in order to accomplish her goal.
Such barriers exist all throughout the American election system, serving as obstacles for third parties trying to establish themselves while barely even being noticeable for Republicans and Democrats. Third parties frequently rail against such barriers, and they're smart in doing so, but that shouldn't be their only worry: as long as American elections are structured the way they currently are, the chances of any third party gaining serious, long-term power in America are effectively zero.
Third parties are not as weak as they are in America out of sheer lack of public interest. 58% of Americans believe that a third party is needed out of disappointment with the Republicans and Democrats. If Hillary Clinton wins the Democratic nomination, some fans of Bernie Sanders will likely shift their support to the social democratic Green Party. When they fail to secure the nomination, some Rand Paul supporters will probably move to the Libertarian Party and some Donald Trump and Ted Cruz supporters will probably move to the paleoconservative Constitution Party.
And yet, as famous Political Historian Richard Hofstadter said in his 1955 book The Age of Reform: Bryan to F.D.R., "Third parties are like bees: once they have stung, they die." In 1996, Ross Perot won over eight million votes when running with the Reform Party. Last election, the same party garnered just over 5,000 votes. The Green Party dropped from 2.9 million votes in 2000 with Nader down to 469,000 in 2012 with Stein.
According to Hofstadter, the reason that third parties are only able to keep a degree of power for a short period of time is because of how the two main parties, which operate "big tents" meant to welcome a variety of different ideological groups, are able to adjust their positions to absorb their voters:
"[Third parties'] function has not been to win or govern, but to agitate, educate, generate new ideas, and supply the dynamic element in our political life. When a third party's demands become popular enough, they are appropriated by one or both of the major parties and the third party disappears."
This is true: both the Democrats and the Republicans have historically been able to change rhetoric and ideology in order to accommodate new ideological voter groups. But why doesn't this rule apply in other democracies, where there are a wide variety of political parties with the potential to hold political power? Why is it that Canada, France, Germany, and the UK all have more than five political parties in parliament right now while we only have two in congress? The answer is that our elections are fundamentally different than theirs.
Unlike most other nations, America has plurality-based single member district elections, often referred to as a "first-past-the-post" or "winner-takes-all" system. Here, people vote for just one person for a given district or position, and whoever receives the largest number of votes wins that position. This type of system is cursed by a widely-accepted principle known in political science as Duverger's law, which dictates that it will naturally tend towards two political parties. Because they can only cast one vote and there can only be one winner for every position, voters rationally seek to avoid voting for parties that they know don't have much popular support, since that would be "wasting your vote." If a voter did so, they could even unintentionally help the party they like the least by "splitting the vote" of people similar to them among a variety of small parties instead of one, large, unified party. This problem is called "strategic voting": not voting for who you actually want to win in order to avoid a negative outcome you wish to prevent.
As a result, voters from a variety of different ideologies flock towards the group closest to their beliefs among the parties that is most likely to win, and that process continues until there are only two parties left. The video below provides a fun, easy to understand visualization of this in action. Duverger's law is covered from 1:36 to 4:17, but watching the whole thing will help it make far more sense:
This is a problem for democracy, as it lowers the amount of real choice that voters have and forces them to support parties and candidates they don't actually like, while rewarding politicians for promising contradicting things to different groups of voters in order to maintain a wide base of support. All of this weakens how much control the people have over their government.
As the video explains, this system opens up the potential for yet another problem, this one specific to congress: gerrymandering. In the majority of states, state legislatures either decide or play a major role in deciding how the lines for congressional districts are drawn. They use this power to their advantage, organizing districts in a way to provide their own party with an unfair advantage. This process is how, in 2012, the Democrats won more total national votes for the House of Representatives than Republicans did, but Republicans still wound up with 33 more seats than them. Sometimes, gerrymandering isn't even secret: a court document filed recently by the Chairman of the Virginia Board of Elections spoke of "incumbency protection" as one of "the Legislature's overarching priorities" in determining districts.
Along with distorting congressional representation between the two major parties, gerrymandering could also be used to extinguish the chances of third parties as well. Using this process, even if the entirety of one large city unanimously wanted their congressional representative to be from a third party, the state legislature could draw up the map so that the city is split between a number of surrounding districts, eliminating its chances at forming a unified voting bloc for a candidate from said third party.
Though the Democrats might benefit from the rise of a right-wing third party that splits the conservative vote and Republicans might benefit from the rise of a left-wing party that splits the liberal vote, both parties recognize the desirability of keeping the system between themselves. Less potential competition makes the system so much easier for them. Because of this, they have every incentive to game the system using gerrymandering to prevent a third party from sending a candidate to congress.
There are a number of ways that we can solve these problems. Many countries have abandoned the very idea of single-member districts, adopting alternative election methods instead. One popular option what's called a "party-list proportional representation" system. In congressional elections under this system, everyone votes for a party instead of candidate. If a party wins a certain percentage of the vote, they get that percentage of the seats in the legislature, and the candidates who take those seats are chosen from a publicly available list made by the party. So, for example, under this system the Republicans would run for the Senate as a party, and they would publish a list of one hundred of their candidates in a listed order. If 20% of the voters vote for the Republican party, then they would get 20 of the 100 Senate seats, which they would give to the first 20 people on their list.
This way, even if a party doesn't win the majority of the vote in any given district, they still have congressional representation. All a third party would need in order to get one congressional seat is one percent of the vote . Advocates claim that this system takes better account of the true beliefs of the voters, allowing relatively small and distinct groups to have their own unique say in the political process.
However, these systems might be hard to sell to Americans, who often like the idea of having someone from their own city or area represent them politically and be directly accountable to them. An alternative idea is to keep district-based elections, but change basically everything else. The decision of how districts are drawn can be kept politically neutral by giving the task to independent commissions, which is how it currently works in four states. Then, the fear that people have of "spoiling the election" by voting for a third party candidate that they like the most can be eliminated through instant-runoff voting. Under instant run-off voting, a voter would be asked to rank the candidates on the ballot in order of who they like the most, and votes are then determined through a series of runoffs that eliminate the least popular candidate and shift people's votes accordingly.
Say there was a ballot with three candidates: A Republican, a Democrat, and a Libertarian. Under our current system, someone who likes the relatively unpopular Libertarians would probably make the rational decision to suck it up and vote for their second favorite choice (the Republicans) so that their least favorite choice (the Democrats) don't win. Under instant runoff voting, however, they'd instead just rank Libertarians as their first choice, Republicans their second, and Democrats their third. Then, if the Libertarians got the least number of votes, his vote would automatically be transferred to his second favorite choice, the Republicans, in an instant run-off election. This would eliminate the problem of strategic voting, allowing voters to support who they like without fearing that they're indirectly supporting someone that they don't.
Even with these reforms, however, our current elections would still be stacked in favor of a two-party system. The enormous flow of private money to political parties and the extremely limited public funding available benefits the parties with the most connections and the most willingness to bow to the policy preferences of the wealthy. The Republicans and the Democrats are both experts in those areas, to varying degrees.
The increase in the influence that a small number of wealthy interests have had over elections in recent years has an unintended consequence in how it further crowds third parties out of the process. The organization of Super PAC's and large donations are rarely done out of a honest desire to support a candidate one believes in; they're done in order to build relationships and favors with politicians so that they become financially dependent on donors. Donors can then use their influence to craft policy that is friendly to them and their interests, allowing them to earn them a return on their donation. This cynical process is referred to as the "Investment Theory of Party Competition" by Political Scientist Thomas Ferguson, who views donors as investors looking to make a return when putting their money into the political process. Such a system further compounds the irrelevancy of third parties: they don't have political influence, so they can't raise much money, which in turn guarantees that they won't get any political influence.
The limited public funding that we do have is effectively structured so as to keep third parties out. You can only receive public funding for the general election if your party earned at least five percent of the popular vote in the last Presidential election. Since the end of World War II, third party tickets have only achieved that feat twice. Such a high threshold for public support serves the purpose of preventing third parties from breaking through in a similar way to the importance of private money. The financing paradox is simple: third parties can't do well in an election without money, and they can't get money unless they do well in an election.
Another problem, for the Presidential election specifically, is that Presidential debates are rigged to keep third parties out. The debates between the Republican and Democratic candidates are organized by a private organization called the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD), which, believe it or not, is run jointly by the Republican and Democratic parties. In this way, the two parties can cooperate in excluding third party candidates so that they fail to receive any significant attention. Jill Stein and her running mate were arrested for trying to even attend one of the 2012 debates between Obama and Romney.
Recently, the Libertarian and Green parties have teamed up to sue the CPD for violating anti-trust laws. Their proposed fix would be to "include all candidates in presidential debates who are legally qualified to serve... and whose names appear on enough states’ ballots to potentially secure a majority in the Electoral College." Even if their lawsuit does work, such a fix would currently only benefit those two parties and no others (how convenient!). This raises another problem: the process of acquiring ballot access itself is often stacked against third parties, and the policies for it vary widely from state to state. So even if a third party finds a way to get past all of the previously listed problems, there's a chance that they still won't even show up on the ballot.
To recap: in order for a third party to establish themselves as a serious power (with a chance in both the legislative and the executive branch) in the United States under the current system, they need to raise large amounts of money without having what they need to get it, get themselves mass public attention without being able to debate the most popular candidates, try to get themselves on the ballot, find a way to avoid gerrymandering, and then convince voters to vote in a way that ultimately benefits the party they hate most. Beyond that, it's easy.
This isn't to say that voting for third parties is always a useless exercise. When Hofstadter said that they "agitate, educate, generate new ideas, and supply the dynamic element in our political life," he was right. Supporting third parties can be an effective way to influence the activities of the two major parties. If a large portion of the voters who typically support a major party decided to cast protest votes in favor of a third party, the major party would immediately start investigating that third party to see what they can "appropriate" from it (to use Hofstadter's term) in order to win the voters back.
There are fixes to or current system. Instant runoff voting, independent districting commissions, extensive campaign finance reform, and an opening up of debates and ballot access to more political competition would all go a long way in helping to break up the two-party system in America. But the fact remains: under current policy, voting for a third party with the intention of getting them into office is futility in its purest form. And, until people begin to demand change, there's no reason for either of the parties in power to change that.