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Aug 24 2016
by Amelia Brady

Third Parties and Why They Matter

By Amelia Brady - Aug 24 2016
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Standing in the voting booth, many Americans expect to see only two nominees for president, Democrats and Republicans. 

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However, third parties have a long history of shaking up elections and making change happen.

These parties usually fail to gain significant traction due to lack of news coverage and, therefore, lack of recognition.

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Despite this, third parties are vital to the American political system, as they provide alternatives to the Democratic and Republican Parties. Third parties can - and have - become more prominent as voters move away from the major parties. For example, the Republican Party, established in 1853 to address the slavery issue, was originally a third party. Thanks to the incendiary nature of abolitionism during that time, the Republican Party soon gained recognition and validity for their anti-slavery sentiments. By 1860, the Republican Party controlled both houses of Congress and the executive branch. Perhaps the most famous Republican, Abraham Lincoln was the first elected president of the party. 

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Third parties can affect elections, even if they don’t win, by taking votes away from major candidates and splitting the support of the electorate. For example, many believe that the 1992 presidential election was "spoiled" by Ross Perot of the Reform Party because he split the conservative vote with George H. W. Bush and therefore caused Bill Clinton to win the election. Perot finished with 19% of the final vote, making him one of the most successful third-party candidates in history. He also generated anti-Republican sentiment and dissatisfaction with the government of the time. 

Another third party candidate, Ralph Nader, is thought to have changed the outcome of the 2000 presidential election, one of the closest races in American History. Nader believed in regulated capitalism and ran for the Green Party in every presidential election from 1992 to 2008. His campaign was small and less flamboyant than that of the major party candidates but still made a difference. The major party candidates, Al Gore and George W. Bush, were separated by a very slim margin, leading some to believe that Al Gore would have won if the liberal electorate had not been split between Gore and Nader. Nader also brought environmental concerns to the table and garnered support for more regulations for large corporations, specifically in the auto industry. For more information about Ralph Nader's presidential campaigns and beliefs, visit this website.

Third parties can also introduce new ideas to the political landscape. The Prohibition Party, for instance, brought the prohibition issue to light in the late 1800s and succeeded in making prohibition a major political issue over time. This idea was so successful, in fact, that it eventually became the 18th Amendment to the Constitution. This is no small feat, as the process for making an Amendment to the Constitution is long and arduous.  

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Not only do Third Parties introduce new ideas, but they also force major parties to stay honest and confront tricky issues. Because third party candidates are usually aware of the unlikeliness of their success, their candidates tackle serious issues without having to worry about losing voters. This can force the major party candidates to confront these issues as well because Democrats and Republicans don’t want to seem weak or ineffectual. For example, the Green Party has a more detailed and expansive platform for environmental concerns. It supports stricter anti-pollution laws, an environmental tax, and an end to testing products on animals. The Democratic Party has given less detail to its plan for environmental reform. Similarly, the Libertarian Party is much more radical, believing in little to no government intervention in the economy or in the world. 

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As you can see, there is a long history of third parties making real change in the outcome of elections, despite rarely winning the presidency. There is every reason to believe that this trend will persist in this year's election, especially due to the electorate's dissatisfaction with both of the major party candidates. This year, third parties, specifically the Libertarian Party and the Green Party, are expected to gain a relatively large percent of votes compared with past elections. 

As one of the largest third parties in U.S. history, the Libertarian Party has pulled in over 1.5 million votes in every presidential election since 1992. Libertarians believe in extremely limited government, with a very little federal control. This year’s Libertarian candidate is Gary Johnson. To learn more about Gary Johnson and the Libertarian Party, click here to visit the website. If you want more Fresh U coverage of Gary Johnson, read this article. 

The Green Party has also been somewhat successful, with over 130 elected officials across the U.S. As its name implies, the Green Party deals with environmental issues and concerns. Its candidate in this year’s election is Jill Stein. To learn more about Jill Stein and the Green Party, visit this website. Here is another Fresh U article that addresses Jill Stein's candidacy. 

In addition to these, there are many other third parties, including the Constitution Party, the America First Party, the Humane Party, and the Working Families Party. For a full list, visit this website. 

Remember, the two party system only exists because the voters contribute to it, and if the candidates for the major parties aren’t satisfactory, voting third party can be a great alternative. So get out there and vote!

Lead Photo Credit: Wendy Kenin via Flickr Creative Commons

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Amelia Brady - American University

Amelia will be a freshman at University of Vermont in 2016!

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