Despite the fact that several people will be on the ballot for president this November, only two — GOP Candidate Mitt Romney and Democratic President Barack Obama — are considered serious contenders. At Knox, a small group of students are working to change this.
The topic of discussion is third parties, including Greens, Libertarians, Socialists and a vast array of others, which offer alternatives to the traditional two-party structure dominated by Republicans and Democrats.
“If you talk to people about the issues, most people will agree [with third party positions],” sophomore Adrienne Ernst said. “But they won’t say that they’ll vote third party.”
A member of the Knox College Greens, Ernst was introduced to third parties by friend and president of the Greens junior Nick Pernice. Throughout high school, Ernst labeled herself a Democrat to separate herself from her conservative classmates.
“I didn’t want to be a Republican. The Democrats weren’t really what I think, but it’s just what was there,” she said. “I was surprised how much I agreed with it [the Green Party platform].”
Although it is traditionally thought of as an environmental party, central tenets of the Green Party also include support for universal health care, women’s rights and nonviolence. While Pernice acknowledges that there is some overlap with other parties, he sees differences in emphasis of issues.
“The big distinction is the focal point,” he said. “Both [Democrats and Greens] support women’s rights, but to what extent? Both support the environment, but to what extent?”
Despite the adjective “third,” there are far more than three active parties. The largest third party, the Libertarian Party, considers small government one of the most important issues in modern politics. The Constitution Party, a conservative party founded in 1991, focuses primarily on immigration. And the recently formed Justice Party has turned its attention to the issue of corporations in campaign finance.
For post-baccalaureate fellow Erik Hayner ’12, voting third party means honing in on issues not often addressed in mainstream political discourse, including racial issues and poverty.
“There are so many levels of society that are neglected by the two-party system that I think it’s absurd and kind of … dangerous that we don’t consider our society as a whole,” he said.
Third-party voters sometimes receive criticism for “taking” votes from one of the two major parties by voting for a candidate who has very little chance of winning — an argument also used by those who may support third parties but do not vote for them. Yet in a sea of millions of votes, the likelihood of one vote making a difference in who wins is slim, especially in non-swing states like Illinois, according to Pernice.
“Wasting your vote is voting for someone you don’t believe in,” Libertarian Party presidential candidate Gary Johnson said in a debate between third-party candidates on Tuesday.
Another blocker to third-party success is the structure of the American electoral system. Countries in which third parties are successful usually have a system of proportional representation, which involves voting for a party instead of a single candidate. The proportion of votes a party received determines how many seats that party will receive in the legislature.
American elections, on the other hand, utilize a single-member district system in which citizens vote for people. In such a system, the candidate who gets a majority wins, regardless of whether a large minority of people support someone different.
“I felt very disenchanted by the two-party system and the two parties themselves,” freshman Dylan Coakley said. “I just want more options.”
Despite the difficulties of having success as a third-party candidate, third parties have seen greater exposure in recent years thanks to social media. A debate between candidates from the Constitution, Green, Justice and Libertarian parties was also held this cycle on Oct. 23 to give the idea of voting for a third-party candidate more exposure.
“It [a multiparty system] is a better way to run political discourse. … You can’t encompass every person’s beliefs in even three parties,” Pernice said.