Ed Quillen: Guest opinion
October 8, 2010
A dozen or so years ago, I was at a conference for folks from the Mountain West – then a Republican stronghold – and heard an activist proclaim the need for a third party.
To which someone replied, “How about we start with a second party?”
Times have changed. Democrats have done well in the West in recent years. In Colorado, Republicans might be relegated to “third-party” or “minor-party” status after this election.
How? Under state law, if the Republican nominee for governor, Dan Maes, gets less than 10 percent of the vote on Nov. 2, then the GOP becomes a minor party with its candidates at the bottom of each list and some severe restrictions on campaign financing.
Presuming that Tom Tancredo, lately of the American Constitution Party, picks up more than 10 percent of the gubernatorial vote, and Maes gets less, then the ACP would become Colorado’s second major party for the next four years.
While this would be entertaining, especially for Democrats, it really wouldn’t matter that much in the long haul. Either the Republican Party would recover by nominating an electable candidate for governor in 2014, or else the American Constitution Party would become the Colorado Republican Party in all but name.
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Now, I’ve often voted for minor-party candidates like Greens and Libertarians. And I don’t think such votes are wasted – they push the major parties in certain directions for better or worse.
The third-party Populists of the late 19th century inspired the third-party Progressives of 1912, which eventually produced the Democratic New Deal of the 1930s. George Wallace’s American Independent Party of 1968 got only 46 electoral votes. But it also inspired Richard Nixon’s “Southern strategy,” which converted the Republican Party, established in 1854 to oppose the Southern system, into the Southern Party we know today.
So minor parties are influential, even when they don’t win. But why are their victories so infrequent? In other words, why is America such a resolutely two-party nation?
For one thing, we don’t have a parliamentary system of government, wherein a party that lacks a majority can ally with another party to select a prime minister and form a government. That can give minor parties a real role, but our system doesn’t work that way. The way it does work is based on geographic representation, and that pretty well forces us into a two-party system.
Consider an imaginary Colorado congressional district. The incumbent Republican enjoys only 40 percent support. The closest challenger, a Democrat, has 30 percent. The Green, Tea and Libertarian parties each enjoy 10 percent.
Obviously, 60 percent of the voters, a clear majority, would prefer someone besides the Republican, even though he would win the seat with a plurality in an election. The only way to topple him under our system, though, is for all those who oppose him to coalesce around one candidate, so there are only two relevant candidates in the race. And so we end up with a two-party race, even though this district had five parties with at least 10 percent support.
One way around this: Give each Coloradan seven votes to cast for our seven congressional seats, which would all be at-large. Libertarians, Greens, Tea Partisans, Socialists, etc., could put all seven of their votes on a select candidate, while Republicans and Democrats might spread theirs around. You’d get a delegation that better mirrored the diverse political beliefs of our fellow Coloradans.
But I can’t imagine such a system ever taking effect. We’re pretty well stuck with two major parties that get prodded, from time to time, by our powerless minor parties.