By Steven Keehner
After what has felt like an eternity, the embarrassment that was the 2016 Presidential Election has finally come to a discouraging conclusion with Republican candidate Donald Trump shocking the world and defeating his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton. This has left a bittersweet taste in the mouths of many Americans, and after constantly being told to choose between the lesser of two evils, this entire process has given citizens an important message: the duopoly of American politics isn’t working for us anymore.
Since the founding of the Republican Party in 1854, the American political landscape has been dominated by the two major political parties in the United States: Democrats and Republicans. While the parties' views may have changed since this time, their stranglehold on American politics has always been persistent. Just to give you an example of how long this has been going on for, the last President that wasn’t a Democrat or Republican was Millard Fillmore in 1853, a member of the Whig Party who replaced President Zachary Taylor after he died in office.
Now in 2016, many Americans’ displacement of this duopoly has reached a new high. According to Gallup.com, a group that is dedicated to political polling, “In 2015, for the fifth consecutive year, at least four in 10 U.S. adults identified as political independents. The 42% identifying as independents in 2015 was down slightly from the record 43% in 2014.” This number comes while the Democrats received only 29%, and Republicans received only 26%. When evaluating the trends shown in these polls, it’s clear that many Americans don’t even affiliate themselves with either of these two parties. So how is it that we continually see the dominance of these two parties time and time again? For starters, we could look at our voting system: Winner-takes-all voting.
Winner-takes-all voting is the process of elections in the United States, but this system is incredibly flawed, and it can lead to many situations in which the candidate that didn’t receive the majority (51% or more) of voters still wins the election entirely. This has also inadvertently created the two-party system, known as Duverger’s law, which states, “In political science, Duverger's law holds that plurality-rule elections (such as first past the post) structured within single-member districts tend to favor a two-party system and that ‘the double ballot majority system and proportional representation tend to favor multipartism.’”
This leads to situations in which many voters will choose a candidate that has a better chance of winning, compared to a candidate who is closer to their own political views, to ensure that a candidate they don’t want winning loses. To give an example, let’s say you have three candidates; a Republican, a Democrat, and a Libertarian. While you, in this example, may agree with the Libertarian candidate, in our current system, you’ll vote for the more popular Republican candidate in order to ensure that the Democrat doesn’t win. Choosing to vote for the Libertarian in this example is where the “wasted vote” comes from, and this is only a part of the issue with our current system.
Another massive issue is Ballot-Access Laws. These are the requirements needed to allow a party/candidate to appear on an election ballot, and while in theory this may sound like an excellent idea, this can lead to utterly ridiculous requirements that are nearly impossible to meet, or just plain stupid. For example, in Alabama, a new party or independent candidate needs a petition of 3% of the last state Governor vote. Since this bill was passed in 1997, this has only been accomplished once, with the Libertarian Party accomplishing it in 2000. If a party wants to remain, however, they need to receive 20% of the vote in a statewide election. The odds are massively stacked against third parties, and sometimes they are even banned: In Arizona, a bill was passed in 1961 banning the Communist Party (yes, there is a Communist party in the United States) from even being allowed on state ballots.
The final and most important point comes down to the media. If one were to turn on the news during this election cycle, I can guarantee you that you weren’t hearing many reporters talking about Jill Stein or Gary Johnson; instead, they were covering the “big two” candidates: Trump and Clinton.
According to a study by the Shorenstein Center, media coverage played a huge role in this prior election cycle. “This report analyzes news coverage of the 2016 presidential candidates in the year leading up to the primaries. This crucial period, labeled ‘the invisible primary’ by political scientists, is when candidates try to lay the groundwork for a winning campaign—with media exposure often playing a make or break role. The report shows that during the year 2015, major news outlets covered Donald Trump in a way that was unusual given his low initial polling numbers—a high volume of media coverage preceded Trump’s rise in the polls. Trump’s coverage was positive in tone—he received far more ‘good press’ than ‘bad press.’ The volume and tone of the coverage helped propel Trump to the top of Republican polls.” The role played by the media is crucial, and this election proved it. We have Donald Trump set to be the next President of the United States! Lack of media coverage makes third party candidates less likely to receive national support, and without good numbers in national polls (At least 15%), a candidate will not be allowed to participate in National Debates.
Despite these issues, we can still fix our current system without needing radical change. The first modification needed is to get rid of our current voting system, which only favors the candidate who earns a plurality, rather than the candidate who receives the majority of votes. The solution to this is ranked-choice voting: in this system, a voter can rank his or her candidates, so even if the voter’s number one choice fails to win, the voter’s second choice would receive his or her vote. This would allow for voters to choose a candidate that is closer to his or her values while not having to worry about “wasting” a vote. While this system isn’t perfect, I do believe it is more effective and democratic than our current system; it is also used in several countries already, such as Australia and Ireland.
On the issue of Ballot Access Laws, it simply comes down to changing some of these flawed laws. The fact that Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson was the only non-Democrat or Republican that was on all 50 states’ ballots is an example of how undemocratic our system can be.
Finally, we need to make it easier for candidates to appear on nationally televised debates. While the concept of needing 15% on national polls makes sense initially, it is nearly impossible to achieve with most powerful news channels already favoring one of the two big parties. While I don’t believe we should have 20 candidates on the debate stage, I do believe if percentage could be lowered to around 5-10%, it would give smaller candidates a greater chance of presenting themselves to the American public. With the Democrats’ continued shift to the center of the political spectrum, a larger portion of voters are being left in the cold (no pun intended).
If we continue to accept the Duopoly of American politics, we’ll continue to see a large portion of American voters feel isolated in a system that is supposed to be beneficial to everyone. If the proper steps are taken, Americans can change everything for the better. It’s 2017, and we, the American people, deserve better. After the recent Presidential Election, something needs to change.