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There's Nothing Natural, Democratic, or American about Two-party Rule

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In a recent Politico column, Christopher Gacek repeats several myths about third parties and the roles they play in American politics. He does so as a warning to Tea Party organizers tempted to act independently of their presumed allies in the GOP ("The dangerous allure of third parties," March 9) .

Mr. Gacek, senior fellow for regulatory affairs at the Family Research Council, argues that we should pursue political goals solely within the Democratic and Republican parties, that third parties are too marginal to have any effect on politics. In fact, third parties have led on numerous reforms, including abolition of slavery, women's suffrage, workers' rights (including the eight-hour day and 40-hour week), and breaking up the giant corporate monopolies and trusts that dominated America a hundred years ago. The incipient-Republican, Populist, Progressive, Socialist, and other parties introduced these controversial innovations and fought hard for them against fierce initial resistance from the two ruling parties.

There's nothing inevitable about two-party rule. The obstructions that third parties and their candidates (as well as independents) face in many states were enacted by Democratic and Republican legislators in collusion to block other competitors.

In Pennsylvania, a Democrat or Republican running for Governor of the state, US Senator, or President was required to hand in ballot petitions with about 2,000 valid signatures in recent elections. For third party or independent candidates, the requirement was about 67,000 valid signatures. Many states have similar or even more cumbersome rules.

Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich spent about $800,000 in taxpayers' money to keep the Green Party off his state's ballot in 2006. He failed, and Green gubernatorial candidate Rich Whitney drew over ten percent in the general election. But too often, such machinations are successful in blocking third-party participation. Last year, Democrats in Maine's legislature hiked up the requirements for participation in the state's 'clean election' option, increasing the difficulty for candidates who don't accept corporate campaign checks and driving a Green to abandon her gubernatorial run.

In 1987, the Democratic and Republican parties established the Commission on Presidential Debates, wresting control over the debates from the League of Women Voters. Commission chair Frank Fahrenkopf, former head of the Republican National Committee, made no secret of the commission's intention to limit the debates to Democratic and Republican nominees.

It's true that our at-large, winner-take-all election tradition often discourages voting for anyone outside the two-party paradigm and allows plurality instead of majority victories when more than two candidates compete. It also permits a party with a mere 51% majority in a state or district to sweep elections, potentially gaining 100% of seats in a legislature or city council. Why do we continue to tolerate a defective method for electing our public officials?

Greens, Libertarians, and other third parties have promoted reforms like instant-runoff voting (IRV) and proportional representation. IRV allows voters to rank their choices and improves the chances that the winner of an election will have majority support. IRV welcomes the participation of third parties, giving them a fair chance to win while making it nearly impossible for a third party or independent contender to "spoil." Some cities, such as San Francisco and Minneapolis, use IRV for municipal elections.

Unfortunately, Democrats and Republicans too often react with hostility to such reforms, as they did in 1993 when President Clinton nominated Lani Guinier, an advocate of alternative voting systems, as Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights and then withdrew her name under bipartisan pressure. (For more information on electoral reforms like IRV, visit FairVote.)

Mr. Gacek cites the alleged spoiler role of Green candidate Ralph Nader in the 2000 presidential election -- a canard that Democratic Party apologists have used to try to discredit Greens in subsequent races. The spoiler accusation is a figleaf to cover for the fact that Al Gore apparently won the race, but Dems retreated in the face of election manipulation (disqualification and obstruction of legitimate voters, vote count tampering) by GOP officials in Florida and a patently biased Supreme Court ruling that denied the right to vote in national elections. Mr. Gore and his fellow Dems insisted on recounts in only three counties rather than the entire state, and no Democratic US Senator stood up in support of black Representatives who objected when Congress confirmed the Bush "victory" in January 2001. Democrats in Congress went on to rubberstamp much of the Bush agenda, including the USA Patriot Act, surrender of Congress's constitutional war powers and permission for the President to launch a 'preemptive' invasion of Iraq, and confirmation of his Supreme Court nominees.

Blaming Mr. Nader and the Greens for eight years of George W. Bush is like watching a gang of thugs torch your restaurant, then blaming an ice cream stand around the corner for stealing your business.

When similar irregularities occurred in 2004 in Ohio and other states, Democrats again largely ignored widespread complaints, while Green presidential nominee David Cobb and Libertarian nominee Michael Badnarik led the campaign for investigation and recounts. (Rep. John Conyers later joined the effort, holding hearings and publishing "What Went Wrong In Ohio: The Conyers Report On The 2004 Presidential Election." In the wake of the 2004 repeat of a possible election theft, two Cuyahoga County Republican officials were later convicted and it's now widely recognized that computer voting machines are vulnerable to hacking.)

Here's the kicker: while Democrats have worked overtime to keep third party names off ballots, they sometimes bend over backwards to accommodate their GOP opponents. In 2004, when Florida Republicans missed the September 1 filing deadline to place Mr. Bush on the state ballot, Florida Democrats gave them a pass. At the same time, Florida Dems used technicalities to deny Ralph Nader his Reform Party line on the Florida ballot.

You'd think that Democrats might see the value of reforms like IRV, recognizing that it would have given Al Gore an indisputable majority in Florida and probably a few other states in 2000. But tampering with the status quo to make elections fairer and more accurate would violate the gentlemen's agreement between the two major parties. Democrat politicians would perhaps rather risk defeat to Republicans than suffer third party and independent challenges.

Mr. Gacek fears that an independent Tea Party insurgence may hurt Republican candidates and prefers that they make themselves a GOP appendage. From a perspective on the other side of the spectrum, the Tea Party movement has some legitimate gripes, such as trillion-dollar taxpayer-funded handouts for Wall Street, but it remains too much under the spell of corporate royalists and faux populists like Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Dick Armey, and Sarah Palin, and its agenda are too self-defeating for its own members. (What happens when a Tea Partier loses health insurance or defaults on a mortgage?) It's unlikely to gain the traction and internal cooperation necessary to launch a new political party.

But if Tea Party organizers wish to pursue the third-party route, they have every right to do so, and they deserve not to have the electoral system rigged against them.

Mr. Gacek would like us to believe that two-party rule is natural for America, rather than the result of a deliberate effort to narrow our political choices and the range of public debate on any given issue. Bipartisan does not mean universal.

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Scott McLarty is former media director for the Green Party of the United States. He has had articles, guest columns, and book reviews published in Roll Call, TheHill,, Z Magazine, CounterPunch, Green Horizon, The Progressive (more...)

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