Thursday, November 17, 2016

Why are there only two major parties?

Did you ever wonder why "third parties" never seem to gain much traction?  When so many Americans self-identify as "libertarian", why does the LP not qualify as a "major party"?

Well, in case you've wondered, wonder no more.  I'm about to lay some truthiness on ya', and I'll start with an anecdote in the first person.

Some years back — 1990 or thereabouts — an event mandated by the Florida Constitution woke me up.  Every so often, Florida requires that a Constitution Revision Committee be... umm... constituted and its members charged with surveying the people of the state to find out what's wrong that needs to be fixed, and to thereafter propose constitutional amendments to do such fixing.  At the time of that 1990 CRC, the LPF (Libertarian Party of Florida) had a goal — to fix Florida's outrageous ballot access law.  "Outrageous"; that's a pretty strong word.  Why would anyone think such a thing?

At the time, Florida's ballot access law read approximately (I'm not going to copy all that legal gobbledeygook verbatim, dammit) "for Republicans and Democrats, ballot access can be attained by ..." and listed a few fairly-easy-to-accomplish tasks in a choose-one-of-the-above format; "...for all others, ballot access can be attained by ..." and listed a series of relatively difficult processes in a do-all-of-these-or-else format (yes, it actually named the Republican and Democratic parties).  That is, if you were already a R or D, getting on the ballot was pretty simple and straightforward, but if you weren't, you had to start collecting petition signatures not earlier than date-A and ending not later than date-B and submit them to the Department of State by date-C with a nice fat check to cover all the verification that had to be done to make sure you weren't trying to pull a fast one.  The Rs and Ds could get on the ballot as "petition candidates" by collecting a handful of signatures or just paying a nominal fee, or — the really easy way — they could just be nominated by their county committee.  Everybody else had to collect mountains of signatures and empty their treasury to pay the filing fee.

Unfair?  Yes, but also "outrageous".  As a result of this... ahem... disparity, Florida had not seen a third party candidate on their ballot since 1928 when, coincidentally, that new ballot access law was passed — by the Republicans and Democrats.  In 1990, a Tampa maverick named Jack Gargan stoked a political firestorm called THRO (Throw the Hypocritical Rascals Out) and managed to actually get on the ballot — the first time since 1928 anyone had done it.  The LPF saw that as an opportunity to level the playing field.  They pulled out all the stops and managed to get the law thrown out on Constitutional grounds.  Now in Florida the rules are the same for everybody.

So, what happens in other places with similarly discriminatory ballot access rules such as pre-1990 Florida?  Well, for a year or so a party collects dues and contributions from its members and when election time comes around, those members hit the bricks with clipboards and nominating petitions asking random passers-by for their endorsement.  It's a frantic effort almost always time-limited and heavily volunteer-dependent and labor-intensive, and it often fails.  If it appears that the signature deadline can be met, the party almost always writes a check that effectively bankrupts it.  They're on the ballot, but they don't have any money to actually run a campaign.  Even high-profile parties like the LP and the Greens run into this problem — a problem the major parties never even have to think about.

So, do you think these discriminatory rules are put in place to make sure the Rs and Ds never have any serious competition?  Do you think they're not?

Unequal ballot access requirements are the main — perhaps the only — reason you rarely see any significant campaigns for third party candidates.  Even after those rules are evened-out, it takes decades, generations even, for a smaller party to grow into a threat.  The Florida LP has had a quarter-century to catch up and still hasn't gotten substantial traction against the monstrous war chests that can be deployed by the major parties.  As a result — or perhaps it's a cause — third-party votes are still seen by many as "wasted votes".

Until the people get over their "wasted vote" delusion and start voting for parties that actually represent their views, the effect is nearly identical to discriminatory ballot access rules — which still exist in many states.

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