Breaking the 2-Party Two-step (2016 edition)

The following is from the book No Safe Harbor, and is an updated version of the piece that was published here four years ago, and originally here  on election day 2010. For 2016 it features an extended addendum that will also be included in the second edition of the book.

The first Tuesday in November is election day. It is a day when people all over the country go out, and exercise democracy. In some countries, the very act of voting is seen as a triumph, something worthwhile to be attained. The US sees it as so important, that several countries have been invaded in the past century for the purposes of restoring democracy, yet the US does not have a functioning democracy itself, instead there is a pseudo-democracy, where only two parties are allowed to participate, much like in the most restrictive countries; China, Algeria, North Korea.

There are several myths about elections and voting, and I’m going to try and dispel them, or at least explain why what seems like such a good theory, doesn’t work out in practice. I’m going to focus on US politics, but much of this holds true for other countries using a first-past-the-post (FPTP) system, such as the UK. In addition, I’ll use the term “Major Parties” or “Major Party” to collectively describe the Republicans and Democrats. It’s not an ideal choice of term, but it is one in common use in state laws across the country when talking about ballot access, to refer to those parties.

“If you vote for a third party, you’re wasting your vote.”

There is a never ending stream of partisan rhetoric when it comes to third parties. One of the most common claims is that voting for a 3rd party candidate is ‘a wasted vote’. It has led to the rise of tactical voting in the US, where instead of voting for the person they want (if they are not one of the big two parties) we have people voting for the ‘big 2’ representative they dislike least. This was best exemplified in the 2004 US Presidential elections, when people who hated Bush voted for Kerry, and those that hated Kerry voted for Bush. What went completely unnoticed was the third choice in almost every state – that of the Libertarian Party and Michael Badnarik (he was not on the ballot in New Hampshire, or Oklahoma), or for that matter, the Green Party, who were on the ballot in about half the states.

This ‘tactical voting’ is the waste of a vote. Instead of voting for the person you wish to represent you, you are voting to try and deny someone else from doing so, by supporting the opponent who is believed to be the greatest challenge. This then leads to the two major parties producing candidates who are at odds with each other, to get this dichotomy, and play people into an ‘us or them’ situation.

There is another cost. The elected representatives in Congress are universally distrusted, and often thought of as corrupt.Why?

Well, they don’t actually represent the views of their constituents. What they represent is the views of the political party of the candidate that was not as disliked as the other. The other result is the rise in negative campaign adverts. Why spend money saying “vote for me, I’m better,” when you can spend the money pointing out how bad your major opponent is, and get the tactical vote as a response. The additional bonus from this method is if you lose, you’ve got your adverts to say “I told you so,” and if you win you’ve got very few promises to be held accountable for.All this from tactical voting. What a sham!

“Third parties are a waste of time. They will never win.”

There is no reason why they are a waste of time. The main reason they won’t win is not because people don’t support them, but due to tactical voting (see above) people are too afraid to be on the losing side. In addition, there are other elements to supporting the party that matches your views most closely, even if it’s a 3rd party. Aside from winning the election, there are other goals that can be achieved, such as federal funding if the party reached 5% in the previous election. This can be a substantial benefit to many candidates.

Major parties are also scared of third parties. In 2004, when the Libertarian party sued the Commission for Presidential Debates (the organization that runs the presidential campaign debates), the Republican party, and the Democratic Party, over being unfairly excluded from the debates (they had a nationally available candidate, and the debate was paid for using state funds, and held in a state venue (Arizona State university for the 3rd debate), the debate could have gone ahead if the two candidates had agreed to allow Badnarik to participate. Both refused. The Presidential Debates are a substantial piece of advertising, rather than actual debate when it excludes significant candidates. Ninety minutes of prime time television and radio is expensive, and when you add in the news coverage and analysis of it, it’s a major chunk.

One estimate is that the debates work out to be worth at least $40 million in advertising. That’s a substantial sum, and would be more than the total campaign budgets of the minor parties, much less the independents. Of course, $40 million is a drop in the bucket compared to the spending nationally on Major Party candidates, but the desire to control is one that tends to override any mere cost. And costs aresomething the 2010 election has in spades. In 2008, $2.5 billion was spent. For 2010, a mid-term election (which is traditionally less costly than a presidential election year), it’s estimated that between $3 billion and $4 billion was spent on campaign advertising, almost certainly focused on the two main parties. On the other side of the fence, minor party candidates are often asked why they even bother. Again, in 2004, at the Libertarian Party Conference, Michael Badnarik addressed this very issue, saying

“As a Libertarian candidate, I frequently face the ‘wasted vote’ syndrome. People tell me that I’m a good candidate. They believe in what I stand for, but they can’t bring themselves to vote for me because they don’t want to waste their vote. If you were in prison, and you had a 50% chance of lethal injection, a 45% chance of going to the electric chair, and only a 5% chance of escape, are you likely to vote for lethal injection because that is your most likely outcome? Your survival depends on voting for escape even if that’s only a 5% chance.”

Escape is, of course, voting for what you believe in, rather than the death of voting against yourself, voting “tactically.”

Again, it’s down to tactical voting. The perception that 3rd parties won’t win, because voting for them is a wasted vote. Because it’s a wasted vote, people don’t vote for them. Thus they don’t win. This validates people’s view that they were right not to vote for them. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s one that must be broken, in order to bring some actual democracy to the government.

“Voting the party ticket”

A lot of times, people will vote a straight ticket. That means that people will vote for every Democrat, or every Republican on the ballot. The theory is that the party represents the voters point of view, and so voting a straight ticket is the best, easiest way to vote their view. It’s not that simple though. If it were simply a measure of the party position, then why do we need candidates? Just assign a block vote to the party’s national committee chairman. It also completely negates the need for primaries. If the party affiliation is all that’s needed, why is a publicly funded primary needed? All the candidates on the primary ballot represent the party, so they should all stand for the same thing.

We all know that candidates differ widely on what they represent, which is why the whole concept of a “straight ticket vote” is so horrific. That people vote for a candidate, for their representation, without looking at the candidates and what they stand for relying instead on a small letter placed next to their name, is insulting to the concepts of democracy, and insulting to the candidates. It trivializes them and means they’re nothing more than a mouthpiece. Of course, if candidates wish to just be a mouthpiece for a national chairman, then they’re not a good choice as a candidate anyway. The idea of a candidate is to represent their constituents in the government, with a party providing support and guidance and a basic direction. These days, candidates are representing the major parties to the constituents.

There is nothing wrong with voting for candidates of different parties. If the candidate’s position matches your views, then you should vote for them irrespective of their party affiliation. The 1992 Eddie Murphy film The Distinguished Gentleman played on this premise, the “dumb voter” syndrome. Instead of a party though, he went for a name, but it’s the same principle. Voters went in without knowledge (or care) and just looked for something vaguely familiar, beit a surname, or a party affiliation.


Taken altogether, it’s a sad situation, producing terrible results. It’s why we need electoral reform, in order to restore a government that focuses on policies, rather than attacking others because of party identification, and trying to prevent new parties entering and participating on an even keel – that would be too democratic, and upset the status quo.

Before you vote, do your homework, check who your candidates are, and what they stand for, and above all else, please, VOTE BASED ON THE CANDIDATES AND WHAT YOU STAND FOR. This is your government you are electing, it’s not American Idol, or some other pointless, inconsequential TV show. It’s as real, and as serious as it gets. For all that people go on about illegal immigrants, those who were lucky enough to be born citizens, act as a complete disgrace when they abuse the privilege of citizenship.

The real solution would be to adopt proportional representation in some form. It’s considered “too complex” for Americans to understand, yet countries like France and Mexico seem to have no problem with it.

And above all else, don’t complain about the government you get, if you voted tactically, dismissed candidates because of their party, chose not to vote, or just voted a straight ticket. It’s your fault, and the fault of those that acted like you, and has been since this country was founded. Next time, use your brain instead – your country will thank you.

It’s your vote, make it count!

2016 Addendum

Now, I wrote most of this on election day 2010. For 2012 I tweaked it slightly. Now it’s election day 2016, and over the preceding 4 years, there’s been a lot of activity on all sides about third parties and so on.

It’s gone to the point that many of the issues I raised have become publicly debated, but yet no one wants to deal with the solutions. There’s been ignorance thrown around like bullets in a warzone, and often with the same end-result. And with the rise of Trump it’s become less about ‘good’ candidates, as about getting media coverage. The Libertarians have pushed Gary Johnson, who has been more focused on campaigning that he isn’t Trump or Clinton, and not why people should vote for him (probably because his policies are, typically for Libertarians, only viable if everyone suddenly started behaving with utmost altruism, which isn’t going to happen. Meanwhile there’s Jill Stein, an MD that has tried to walk a fine line in not annoying everyone, and has given tacit support for anti-vaxx movements and those complaining of Electromagnetic frequency ‘harm’, despite decades of study on both showing no evidence for these topics – and this is in her specialist field!.

Meanwhile their campaigns have been filled with basic errors that show their simple lack of ability. From Johnson being ignorant of Aleppo, and unable to name a single world leader (did no-one point out to him that the job of President includes the position of dealing with US foreign policy?) Meanwhile Stein can’t get a flight to the right city in a state. These are BASIC things that show a significant lack of not just ability, but of caring. Why should they care though? It’s not like they’re going to have the ability to do anything, because of the stranglehold of the two major parties.

There is some good news on the horizon though. Many polls and simulations have Johnson breaking the 5% barrier, to give the Libertarian party access to federal funding for 2020. Yet there’s an even more unusual movement out there that may have a bigger impact on things. Evan McMullin – a Utah-based conservative who is on the ballot in 11 states, and a write-in candidate in about 25 more. This former CIA officer, actually has a shot of winning Utah, and that could not only throw a big spanner in the works for Trump, but would be the first time since the 1968 election that any non-major party candidate has won electoral college votes (when George Wallace won 46 electoral college votes for the American independent Party).

More importantly it gives him a foot in the door should neither Trump or Clinton get the 270 Electoral College votes they need to win outright. So it may be that as bad as this 2016 election has been, it could give some real eye-opening responses, and prompt reform.

Of course, the biggest reforms of all would be a move to ease and federalize party registration and laws. In October 2016, I compiled a list of laws about write-in candidates, and it took two solid days of research, and came to over 19,000 words (for comparison, No Safe Harbor’s first edition is about 65,000 words) just for those state laws. And it turned out that some states didn’t permit it, others had no requirements at all, which most states required registration with a deadline of between the 3rd of July (Indiana) and the 5th of December (Oregon).

The second is that the media ABSOLUTELY has to take responsibility for the mess that the 2016 election has become. They’ve abandoned their traditional role of educating and informing to go on a ratings binge. It’s estimated that by the end of the Primaries Trump had received over a billion dollars worth of media exposure, all because he was ‘entertaining’ and thus good for ratings. Even at the debates (more tens/hundreds of millions in free advertising) there was little pushback towards facts and away from empty statements and personal attacks.

Most importantly though there needs to be decent candidates. Johnson treated his campaign almost like a joke a lot of the time, since he already accepted he wasn’t going to win. Stein also didn’t give it her full effort, giving the impression (at least to me) at times of her extolling why she’s so much better and more virtuous than everyone else – much like that annoying vegan who tells everyone about how wicked they are for wearing leather. Both were big on the ‘what’, but failed to follow through on the ‘why’ – and if the campaigns act as though they’ve lost before they’re even close to the election, then that sort of self-defeating attitude is likely to percolate through it all, which is why those campaigns kept making stupid mistakes. Of course part of that is because the two major challenging parties have core values that are intrinsically based on false ideals – Johnson sees the ideal economy run much like the cableTV industry – an industry whose members are not only routinely derided, but are often deemed the absolute worst companies in the US. Meanwhile Stein’s pushing for energy dependence on unreliable wind, solar and hydro power, and away from not just fossil fuels, but from nuclear, the only viable clean baseline (able to generate consistently) energy production the US has. And ironically increased wind and solar power requires increased natural gas power generation to act as their power off-setter (wind power’s great when it’s windy, but a wind farm from go from 80% to 1% output in under an hour, and that drop in power has to come from elsewhere, and the only power generation that can respond quickly enough to offset that is natural gas)

The other consideration is that the role of Presidential candidate is often seen as a promoter. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been asked if the Pirates are running a candidate for President. No, and the reason is that it costs a lot of money and takes a lot of ‘on-the-ground effort’ to make happen. “It’s great advertising for the party” some say, but that’s just not true. The majority of people won’t hear of any candidate that isn’t Trump, Clinton, Johnson or Stein, and many will not even hear of the latter two. McMullin is barely known outside his home state, a circle of republican voters and political junkies, and no-one knows who the other candidates running for President are, because they’re just not getting coverage. The presidential campaign is not the key to the solution of the two-party two-step, it’s just one of the most visible symptoms. The solution is almost entirely at the state level, through state legislatures, and through election law reform.

There are no easy paths out, and they’re all going to take time and effort. There is hope though that this election has shocked and surprised/horrified enough people that they’ll want to see about changing things, eliminating the problems, and fixing the issues. As much of a train wreck as the 2016 election has been, if it can provide the impetus for real electoral reform, then maybe – just maybe – the cost to the national sanity and international reputation of America may be worth it in the long run. After all, it’s only once you’ve hit rock bottom that you can’t sink any lower and have to deal with things.

No Safe Harbor is available in paperback from Amazon, or as a free eBook from