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Making Third Parties Matter

One of the biggest problems with national elections in the U.S. is the unequal access that third party candidates have to the voters through their exclusion from televised debates and their low profile in the national media.

Changes in the electoral system proposed by the major parties are significant but do not address the real problem. Currently, legislation to buy new electronic voting machines and take some of the bureaucratic hassles out of voting is sitting in a House committee for cost evaluations. The legislation would allocate $3.5 billion to the reforms.

This legislation is a step in the right direction, but there are a few giant leaps to go. The next step, before real campaign finance reform (public financing), is institutional reform. Democrats and Republicans currently run the institutions that supervise our elections. While such an arrangement seems reasonable, it is a problem because they support policies that make it difficult for third party candidates to win elections. This exclusion is distressing because third parties are essential to keeping the mainstream parties in check and promoting important legislative reforms. If we are to have a healthy democracy, we must have third parties, and this means taking electoral supervision out of the hands of Democrats and Republicans.

Currently, elections are supervised by the bipartisan Federal Elections Commission (FEC). It is comprised of three Republicans and three Democrats who are chosen by congressional leaders. Among these six, two (Commissioners Bradley Smith and David Mason) are outspoken opponents of campaign finance reform. This fact raises the question of whether the commission will even enforce the new laws. But the bigger problem is that the FEC keeps third party candidates out of elections. To provide unbiased oversight, the federal government must disband the commission and replace it with an independent commission. This change would take the politics out of supervising elections, and it would mean that the campaign finance laws would be enforced without partisan bias.

The same is true on the state and local levels. Election supervision is in the hands of politicians who, despite their best efforts, may show a bias toward one particular party. Republican Katherine Harris, co-chair of President George W. Bush’s Florida campaign, was also the Secretary of State and election supervisor in Florida during the last presidential election. Her decisions on the manual recount played a key roll in putting Bush in the White House. Perhaps, as the Carter Center does for other nations, the U.S. should invite election observers from our European allies to oversee the process and make sure it is completely fair. This oversight would not be an insult to our sovereignty, but rather an important gesture to show that we are not hypocrites and that international oversight can go both ways.

The 2000 presidential debates, and the controversy surrounding them, brought to light another unfair organization—the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD). Green Party candidate Ralph Nader and Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan had enough support to get on the ballot in many states. However, they were excluded from the debates because of their failure to show 15 percent support in a national poll. This exclusion was a direct result of Democrat and Republican collaboration. Eight of the CPD’s nine board members are Republicans or Democrats, and the executive director is a Republican.

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In 1992, third party candidate Ross Perot went into the debates with seven percent support and ended up winning 19 percent in the presidential election, making him one of the most popular third party candidate in modern times. His inclusion in the debates (then the standard was only “a chance to win”) caused a jump in support and gave hope to third parties everywhere. However, it horrified the major parties, which knew that no candidate could win without being in the debates. They raised the bar in 1996 and raised it again in 2000 (to the 15 percent level), making it nearly impossible for a third party candidate to get into the debates.

Including third party (or fourth or fifth party) candidates in the debates may just shock the mainstream parties out of their complacency. The first step is to abolish the CPD and put an independently-controlled, nonpartisan FEC in charge of presidential debates. To those who object to having more than two people in a debate, the 2000 Republican presidential primary debates are a good example of multiple candidates having vigorous debates.

Some have suggested that Democrats and Republicans would never enact the reforms because they would not want to hurt themselves. That is where grassroots pressure comes in. Citizens must make real election reform a central issue in the upcoming elections until fair campaigning and voting procedures are in place in all 50 states. If we show that we care enough, even the most stubborn of incumbents should fall into line. If incumbents have a choice between reelection and certain defeat, they will likely vote to let third parties in.

Nicholas F. B. Smyth ’05, a Crimson editor, is a first-year in Wigglesworth Hall.

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