black and white photo of vintage voting stations with paper punch ballots

The U.S. Election System Really Is Rigged Against 3rd Parties, But What Can Be Done?

by Shannon Hanson

Is The U.S. Election System Rigged Against Third Parties in the United States?


In the 1992 U.S. presidential election, billionaire Ross Perot ran for President as an independent. Some polls had him beating both Incumbent George H.W. (the Senior Bush) and eventual winner Bill Clinton. Although Perot dropped out of the race and then reentered just weeks before the election, he still won almost nineteen percent of the nationwide popular vote. He garnered support in every state and from all over the political spectrum though most of his support is believed to have come from political  moderates.

Perot had the best showing by a third party candidate from the standpoint of the popular vote in 80 years, and yet, he did not get a single all-important electoral vote. Four years later he was back. This time he ran under the banner of the Reform Party – a party he formed – but he could not match his own success.

When Perot waged his independent battle against the two major parties Bernie Sanders was serving his first tour of duty in the U.S. House of Representatives, He too had chosen the Independent designation in his 1990 congressional race.

photo of U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT)

By the time Bernie made his run for the Presidency, he had been elected multiple times to the House and twice to the Senate – all of them as an independent.

So why didn’t Bernie run as an independent for President? After all, Perot came out of nowhere and look how well he did. Meanwhile, Bernie had established street cred as an independent and had a fair amount of name recognition.

Bernie is politically savvy and recognized that he had no chance of becoming the next resident of the White House running as an independent. So, despite a decades-long record of singing sour notes about the Democratic Party he changed his tune and hopped on the Democrat’s band bus.

The other reality that Bernie was keenly aware of was that elections cost a lot of money. In total, the 2016 presidential race saw a massive 2.4 billion dollars in campaign spending by all parties. Ross Perot spent more than 65 million dollars of his own money in 1992 which is more than 118 million today, and look what that got him. 

Perot is a billionaire, Bernie Sanders is not.  Running as a Democrat gave Bernie access to donor lists and voter intelligence which the Democrats – including his primary opponent – had spent decades gathering. Plus the Democrats have a massive fundraising operation and a well established GOTV initiative, which would be at his disposal if he survived the primaries.

Exit polls during the 1992 election show that Ross Perot pulled about 75 percent of his votes from the two major party tickets and that he pulled them evenly from both Candidates. A third party candidate can use an ala carte approach where he supports some items from the Republican Platform and some from the Democrats hoping to entice voters who may not like all of either party’s platform.  Libertarians, for example, claim to favor the social justice aspects of the Democrats and the economic policies of the Republicans.

Autonomy from any party platform can give independents an advantage even over established third-party candidates. Those running in an established third-party are tied to that parties platform and policy positions just as major-party candidates are. Established third-parties sometimes provide candidates with help messaging, organizing, getting out the Vote and possibly even fundraising but they pale in comparison with the operations both of the major parties have.

Ross Perot was virtually unknown before 1992, however he struck a middle of the road chord, avoided the high notes and his Texas drawl provided a goofy sort of aw-shucks appeal. It was easy for moderates to like him. 

Bernie may be an independent, but he has long caucused with the Democrats and his policy positions are not only well known but a bit radical to some. Plus he comes off as stuck up and as though his ideas are the only ideas worth merit.  Sanders would have pulled votes primarily from the Democrats and he knew it.  Although he may have brought disenfranchised left-wing voters to the polls, history shows it likely would not have been enough. 

As it turned out, he might actually have pulled a small percentage from Never Trumpers, but it is important to remember that the calculus which led to his decision to run as a Democrat happened when Trump was one of more than a dozen candidates and one who was considered to have no chance to be the Republican nominee.

Since Perot’s second campaign in 1996, only two candidates running outside the two major parties have broken two percent in the general election for President. Ralph Nader in 2000 and Gary Johnson in 2016, neither of whom was an independent. Does this mean that the electorate of the U.S. is comfortable, for the most part, with the two parties?  It’s hard to find evidence of that if one pays attention to to the electorate.

Take a look at voter turnout. The last time voter turnout in a Presidential election passed 60 percent was 1968 and then just barely. Midterm elections are even more anemic. Meanwhile elections in Europe average 77 percent turnout. In fact, the US lags behind most of the OECD countries in voter turnout, of 35 developed countries we rank 27th.

Yes, The System Really is Rigged

Rusty Gears

One of the chief reasons people give for not voting is disenfranchisement. Possibly the biggest reason people are disenfranchised is that they feel the system is rigged especially in how it treats third-party candidates. The main reason that people think the system is rigged is because it is.

It is important to note that we are really talking about two systems. Our system of Government and our election system, both of which are rigged. Although the two are kissing cousins they have separate bedrooms and a different curfew.

This might explain why our elections allow any number of parties while our system of government does not. 

By definition, a two party system is one where two major parties rule the political landscape with the supposed advantage of providing greater stability versus systems with proportional representation or a parliamentary system. The idea is that in order to garner a majority of votes a party will need to present and represent a broad range of ideas. Maybe it worked that way once but it doesn’t anymore.

America’s two-party system pits the conservative world view against the liberal world viewIn theory, since few people are either wholly conservative or wholly liberal, the conservatives will need to draw votes from some non-conservatives if it is to win elections. Vice Versa for the liberal side. 

Similarly – again in theory – the two parties should want to present legislation that appeals to those in the middle in order to win the next election. They should, but they don’t – not often anyway.  When they get called on it, they lie or blame those who are not in charge, and we the people obviously believe them.  When we don’t believe them, it doesn’t matter because the elections are rigged.

In theory, our system should actually give more political clout to those who subscribe the least rigidly to one or another world view.

Imagine a person who opposes abortion, favors public schools and believes in same-sex marriage. Depending on how strongly she believes in any of these, she might find a home in either party. She would be getting prom invites from boys in both the big schools in the area – and probably at least one of the little ones. Once the prom is over though everyone seems to have lost her number.

You have probably heard the old marketing joke that has The Devil and God each trying to convince a newly arrived soul about the virtues of each one’s eternal retirement home? Political campaigns are like that.

The conventional wisdom of politics is that you run down the middle during the campaign and then get on your base once the ballot box is closed. The problem is that in our Federal Government system there are only two bases and if you get elected you have to pick one.

A guarantee of control                    

Consider the U.S. form of government compared to a parliamentary system.

A parliamentary system generally does not define a number of parties in government. Currently, for example, there are ten political parties represented in the British House of Commons.  If the party with the most seats does not have an absolute majority they must form an alliance with another party. You can bet that the cooperation of that minor party comes with strings.

The only way things get passed is by reaching across party lines. Better yet minor parties can join forces and may even have more numbers than the party which is in control. The only way the primary party would not need to reach across party lines would be if they can manage to get half the numbers of members (currently 650) plus one.

In the United States, one of the two major parties is guaranteed complete control of the House and nearly complete control of the Senate.  Even if third parties or independent candidates get elected, they caucus with one side or the other. 

Third party candidates or those with some degree of independent thinking only have power if the total number of people on each base is very close to even. Third party Congress critters could also have an effect if there were lots of them who were similarly aligned.

Worse yet, in essence, three people hold all the power in our government and there is no case in which any one of them could come from a third party. Although It is technically possible for the POTUS to be from a third party.  I should say it would be possible if the President were elected by popular vote rather than by the Electoral College.

Laws That are used to Rig Elections

There are different categories of legal levers which affect U.S. elections in profound ways, Two of these are ballot access laws and ballot box access laws.

Ballot access laws   A ballot being filled out.

Ballot access laws control what hoops a candidate must jump through in order to have their name appear on the ballot be it for the office of dog catcher or President of the United States. These laws are set (by Democrats and Republicans) at the state level.

So too are the laws which determine what needs to be done to make changes to these laws, set at the state level. Unless you plan to run a write-in campaign (don’t) you need to know the laws in your state in order to get your name on the ballot.

Here’s the thing though about those hoops, candidates running under the flag of either major party get to bypass some of the hoops because they have automatic ballot access in all fifty states plus D.C. Automatic access means that the nomination of the Candidate by the party is all that is needed for the name to appear on the ballot in a state.

Independent and many third-party candidates, on the other hand, must earn ballot access.

Not having automatic ballot access does not mean a candidate can’t be on the ballot, only that access must be earned. A candidate will probably need to gather signatures and possibly meet some other criteria.

The number of signatures needed varies widely.  Two states Louisiana and Colorado, allow you to either pay a small fee or gather a small number of signatures, while other states require as many signatures as five percent of the total votes cast in the last election.

In most cases, once a  party has gathered these signatures they will have recognized political party status. That means that all candidates at all levels who run under that party’s flag will have ballot access for some period, often two years.

There are also guidelines for maintaining party access in later elections. Generally, these are contingent on your party getting a certain percentage of votes in one or more races or having a number of voters registered from your party.

Third parties have been able to obtain and retain ballot access in many states. In the 2016 general election, the Libertarian Party has ballot access in all 50 states, the Green Party in 44. Since running as an independent means no party affiliation, signatures must be gathered in almost all states. Had Bernie decided to run as an independent his team would have needed to get more than 860 thousand signatures nationwide.

Gathering the requisite signatures can be a lot of work and navigating the laws can be difficult. This is on purpose. The good news is that, unless you are running for POTUS you only need to know the laws for your state.

NOTE: Ballot access laws have recently been in the news as several states are using them as a cudgel by denying access to candidates who do not release tax returns. Although the SCOTUS has been pretty clear in their support of states setting ballot access laws it remains to be seen if these laws get challenged and if they hold up.

Ballot Box Access Laws

A ballot being dropped into a ballot boxIn the Virginia constitutional convention of 1902, delegate Carter Glass  told the truth about the purpose of a poll tax when he said it was designed, “with a view to the elimination of every negro voter who can be gotten rid of, legally, without materially impairing the numerical strength of the white electorate.”

After the Fifteenth Amendment to our Constitution extended the right to vote to all males, Virginia and several other states implemented poll taxes. Some included mechanisms to help ensure that most white males would not have to pay the tax.

For example, grandfather clauses said that if your father’s father was able to vote then you don’t have to pay the tax.  Since no black person could meet that criteria they all would be subject to the tax. Of course, the amount of the poll tax was burdensome to the poor so, as an added bonus to rich white men in charge,  poll taxes disenfranchised poor people in general. 

Eventually, poll taxes were ruled unconstitutional, however many forms of ballot box access laws are still in use. In fact, the Republican party excels at voter suppression using laws of this sort. The targets are largely the same, only the means have changed.

While ballot box access laws do not directly affect third Party candidates any more than other candidates they contribute a great deal to voter malaise and the feeling that “my vote doesn’t matter anyway.”

What can we do about it?

Since the Republican party began in 1856 there have been a total of 30 U.S. Senators and 112 U.S. Representatives who at one time while in Congress were listed as anything other than a Democrat or Republican. That includes those such as Senator Robert Byrd and Senator Jim Jeffords who were elected as a major party candidate and then switched to independents.

Currently, there are no independent or third-party candidates among the voting members of the U.S. House of Representatives. The Senate has two independent members and none from third parties.

The closest anyone has come to the presidency as a third party Candidate was then former President Teddy Roosevelt and his Bull Moose Party in the 1912 Election. Roosevelt got nearly 29 percent of the popular vote and 88 electoral votes.

These numbers are not that surprising when you consider the incredible hurdles faced by non-major-party candidates. Factor in the well-oiled sense that any vote that is not cast for either of the big two is a wasted vote and the hurdles become high jumps.  So what can be done?

Change comes from direct action. If you would like to see third parties have more relevance in our system changes need to made to the laws that affect our elections.  Good independent thinking candidates need to be empowered to run for office at all levels and voters need to be empowered to vote for who they want without feeling they are throwing away a perfectly good congressional vote.

National Compass contributor and 2018 Independent candidate for New Jersey’s Congressional District (CD-1), Paul Hamlin, shared some insights on how you can propel the independent / third party movement forward:

“Viable third-party candidates are difficult to find, as the public space is filling with the extremes of the political spectrum and the lunacy of the day.

If you can find a candidate that represents opinions or positions you hold dear, and dares to run as an independent candidate, understand that the journey is difficult and hard for that candidate. You must find ways to support, lift them up, donate money and time, offer your home, your yard, almost any help will be appreciated.

Most of all, do not walk away from the candidate that is willing to stand up against the complacency and corruption of the major parties, rather embrace them and encourage them beyond their current endeavors.”

To illuminate his observations, below are three things which I believe would go a long way toward accomplishing all three.

Campaign Finance Reform

Our out of control campaign finance system not only puts third-parties at a disadvantage versus major parties it also adds a great deal to the sense that the fix is in. This translates to lower voter turnout.

This is the only one of the three I mention here which any major-party members of Congress talk about. There are also a number of organizations working to change laws around campaign finance including calling for a Constitutional amendment dealing with it  (which might very well be the only real way to avoid a constitutional challenge). 

Here is a good list to work from.  Many of these organizations can detail the necessity for Finance reform far better than me and I encourage you to check out their websites.

Work to get fusion ballots in your state.

In the 1994 election for the U.S House of Representatives. Bernie Sanders secured the nomination for the Democratic Party and appeared on the ballot as a Democrat. Sanders also appeared on the ballot as an Independent. He did the same thing in 1998 and 2002.

 In 2004 his name was on the ballot as an independent and as the Progressive Party nominee. In each case, he won the general election and served his term as an independent. This is possible because Vermont is one of only a few states which allow fusion ballots.

Fusion Ballots allow a candidate to be nominated and appear on the ballot under multiple party designations. Votes are added together and the candidate receives the total from all lines.

Fusion ballots give third parties a real foot in the door. Because the votes are recorded for all party designations, third-party leaders know how many other their voters contributed to a candidate’s win.  They can use this when approaching elected officials about third-party policy preferences.  The winners can clearly understand the importance of the third-party voter in securing a victory.

Most importantly, voters can vote their conscience without feeling like their choice of a third party is wasted. It is truly a win for almost everyone, but don’t let that fool you into thinking the major parties will make it easy to implement in your state. In fact. Democrats in New York want to do away with Fusion ballots

Work to get Instant runoff elections and majority requirement in your state.


Instant Runoff Voting (IRV), sometimes called Ranked Choice Voting, allows  – though it doesn’t usually require –  voters to chose which person is her first choice, her second choice and so on. If no candidate has a majority after the first ballot count, the candidate with the fewest 1st choice votes is eliminated. That candidate’s votes would be given to the remaining candidates as indicated by the voter and so on until one candidate has a majority.

For example, you could choose the Green Party candidate as your first choice and the Democrat as your second. If the Green Party candidate is eliminated your second choice selection could help put the Democrat over the top. 

Losing candidates can see how many of their voters contributed to the winning candidate’s victory which empowers candidates and voters in the same way that Fusion Ballots do. 

Currently only Maine has full statewide instant runoff voting. In other states, IRV can be found in some counties or municipalities. Minneapolis St Paul and San Francisco for example.

Encourage third-party candidates to run for office – better yet run yourself.

You have to win to change the rules right?


Even though our current system discourages third-party candidates, the more voters see third-party choices on the ballot the more likely they are to explore the ideas presented by other than major party candidates. Your efforts such as talking to voters at your local level can possibly make voters consider the person seeking statewide or national office.

It is often very inexpensive or even free to run for local office or even for your state Legislative body. although some races do not allow you to specify a party affiliation, running for any office – even if you lose  – helps build name recognition which is one of the biggest factors for winning elections.

Running for office can be incredibly frustrating, but it is also very personally rewarding. Plus you will learn how to better advocate for the policies you prefer. 

Shannon Hanson is a web developer and technology guru who lives in Montana.

Shannon has been an activist and rabble-rouser for decades and has worked on national, statewide and local political campaigns including his own.

Shannon owns a technology consulting company and teaches WordPress, social media, and technology classes at the local college. He also heads up a non-profit dedicated to the writing community. When he isn’t working he’s probably taking pictures, working on his novel, writing a blog post. walking in the woods with his dog, cooking or tinkering with something.

Oh and he’s the worlds oldest beginning drummer.

Twitter  @writer_sdh 


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One thought on “The U.S. Election System Really Is Rigged Against 3rd Parties, But What Can Be Done?

  1. Interesting article, but I have a few points I’d like to make.

    Bernie is anything but independent. He is a democratic socialist and is far, far to the left of pretty much everyone ideologically.

    It’s not conservatives vs. liberals any more. Both major parties have drifted to the left. In 2016, we saw the democrats debating who was more progressive. Meanwhile, the “republicans” under Trump continue many, if not most, of the progressive policies and practices of previous administrations, and spend like there was no tomorrow. The duopoly has us all by the throat and are both intent on squeezing the life out of us. True conservatives have no home to call their own.

    In my state, getting on the ballot as a “new” party, other than those already established, is practically impossible with multiple hoops that have to be jumped through in order to establish legitimacy. Fusion ballots may offer a way for conservatives like myself who are unaffiliated with any party to be able to vote in our closed primaries.

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