It's (Third) Party Time
We hear it on the eve of every election. "The two-party system is corrupt." "The major parties don't address the issues we want to talk about." "I'll cast a vote for president, but I'm picking the lesser of two evils. Just once I'd like to vote for someone I really believe in."For years, Americans have expressed their disenchantment with the two-party system. According to statistics gathered by the Center for Voting and Democracy in Washington, D. C., 60 percent of Americans polled want a third party to compete for offices at every level of government. But this strong sentiment hasn't exactly built the foundation for real political reform.Third parties can point to little success on the American landscape, despite the fact that more than 1,000 have come on the scene during the past two centuries. Many are "only a memory now, for trivia junkies and TV game shows," laments Steven Hill, an executive with the Center for Voting and Democracy and a member of the California Green Party, who made his remarks at a national Green Party convention last year.Of the 5,440 House seats in state assemblies nationwide, only three are held by members of a third party. Out of the 535 U. S. House and Senate seats, one is held by a third party representative, socialist Bernie Sanders, a congressman from Vermont.Hill and other Green Party members are doing their best to make their party one of the third parties that stays on the scene. The Green Party is unique because it is international, having started in Germany 15 years ago. Come November, the Green Party U.S.A. will run Ralph Nader for president. The original plan was to get Nader on the ballot in all 50 states. Not always an easy task, considering the thousands of signatures that need to be gathered in each state to get a candidate on the ballot. At press time, the Green Party was expected to give up the effort in Texas. The party, however, is already on the ballot in eight states including Maine, New Mexico and California. Other states are soon to follow. Ross Perot's Reform Party is also expected to run a candidate. At press time, Perot had yet to announce if he himself would be that candidate. In any case, the Reform Party, is already on the ballots in 43 states, including California, Maine, Minnesota and Ohio. In the 1992 election, even with Perot's schizophrenic "I'm in the race; I'm not in the race; now I'm back in again," campaign style, he managed to capture an impressive 18.9 percent share of the popular vote nationwide. He won zero electoral votes, mind you, but his presence in the race-replete with his eye-glazing charts about the national deficit and economic malaise-kept the debate focused on the economy.Nader asserts that his presence will keep the presidential debate focused on health care, special interest corporate subsidies, the environment, and other issues the major parties only give lip service to, he says.Ever the maverick advocate, Nader is doing the unthinkable in presidential politics. He is refusing any campaign funding. He doesn't want his campaign tainted by the influence of corporate and special-interest money, he claims. "The political system, regardless of party, has degenerated into a government of power brokers," he writes in his position paper known as the Concord Principles. He hopes to capture 5 percent of the vote, a small percentage really, but one that would qualify the Green Party for significant financial support in subsequent elections. (See sidebar called, "The Money Machine.") But Nader may grab more than 5 percent in certain states. A poll in California shows that 14 percent of voters would support Nader if the election were held today.Closer to home, there are folks in Connecticut and New York who are frantically collecting signatures to get Nader on the ballot in those states. The Connecticut Green Party has 75 members, with 10 people per week calling to offer help in the Nader initiative, reports Michael Doyle, a party organizer from Durham. In New York, Rob McRoberts has been organizing for Westchester County and its northern neighbor, Putnam County. The Hudson Highlands Green Party, which will hold a convention at the Putnam Valley Library June 15 and 16, is also hoping to field a congressional representative to go up against Sue Kelly (R), the loyal Newt Gingrich supporter from District 19."You'll just be siphoning votes away from Clinton," were the worried remarks made by several who gathered at the Westchester Peoples' Action Coalition in White Plains the evening of May 17 to talk about the viability of third parties in our political system. George Bush's supporters said the same thing of Perot in '92.The criticism baffles McRoberts and Doyle. Democrats, Republicans -- they're very much the same, they say. Clinton and Dole are not all that far away from each other in ideology, says McRoberts, especially in their support for corporate tax subsidies -- tagged as corporate welfare -- and the military industrial complex. The Democratic and Republican parties are spoiled and corrupted by a political machine that has forgotten about the needs of the people, these third party advocates contend.Other third party organizers are in total agreement. Labor advocates, who have for years traditionally supported the Democratic Party, are expected later this month to form their own political party as well. New York state, especially, is seeing stepped-up third party activity. David Eisenhower, a resident of Cold Spring, a town north of Peekskill, is one of the organizers for the state's chapter of The New Party. This party, now 4 years old, has representation in at least 10 states. Its policies mirror the Greens on some issues. Both are for a sustainable economy that would employ -- at a livable wage -- anyone who wants to work. The New Party's manifesto also supports gay rights, public financing of elections (which would encourage free party competition), and a health-care system accessible to all Americans. Eisenhower also pledges a "corporate responsibility act" -- a series of laws that would hold corporations to humanitarian and environmental standards -- that would "make Kathi Lee Gifford cry".The very long odds these parties face in successfully winning elections don't intimidate them. They are fueled by their idealism and a clear belief in the failures of the current system. "The two-party system has been anti-Semitic, anti-child, racist, and misogynist," Eisenhower says. "We can see where it has gotten us."The Green Party and The New Party are only two of the national parties that have garnered local support. There's the Campaign for a New Tomorrow, a fledging party born of Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition, formed when he tried for the Democratic Party nomination in 1988. Jackson's then-campaign manager, Ron Daniels, has since abandoned Jackson's camp, claiming that the coalition has forgotten the common folk it once sought to embrace. Campaign for a New Tomorrow has its strongest support in New York City, Atlanta, Pittsburgh and Washington, D. C. It is dedicated to building a party whose leadership is made up of "people of color," explains Mary France, the New York coordinator. Daniels is expected to run for president in this election year, although it is not known if he is yet on the ballot in any state. France herself has run for Congress under the party banner for the sheer exercise of "getting the message out."Third parties, however, have not just been formed in the national arena. Many have candidates fielded candidates in local elections, notes Joe Loy, Connecticut's elections officer, who reports an increase in third party or "minor" party activity. Many of these parties are arch liberal; some arch conservative. Libertarians and Green Party candidates have run in local elections in many cities and towns in Fairfield County, including Darien, Greenwich, Bridgeport, Norwalk and Stamford. Numerous conservative, anti-tax parties have formed in both Fairfield and Westchester counties for the express purpose of fielding school board candidates who would cut school budgets and ease property tax burdens.All the aforementioned parties have had their share of near-wins, so they claim. A candidate who ran with the Campaign for a New Tomorrow Party almost won a seat on the city council in Pittsburgh. The Greens also quote their share so-called "victories." A candidate for a state seat in New Mexico won 11 percent of the vote.Whether national or parochial in scope, third party activity is getting a boost from umbrella groups that are helping to organize volunteers. On the liberal side is the newly-formed Independent Progressive Politics Network (IPPN), a Brooklyn-based group that has established ties with 45 political parties and action groups from 22 states. In April, IPPN held its first official convention, gathering hundreds of third party advocates in Atlanta. Last year a less formal meeting of independent, progressive groups and parties was held in Pittsburgh.Instead of forming its own party, IPPN seeks to support candidates from progressive parties that share its views. IPPN has drafted a national pledge whose tenets stand for quality health care for all citizens, economic and reproductive rights for women, a reformed prison system that would abolish the "prison industry," and a reformed political system. "We want a system that money can't buy," explains Muriel Tillinghast, the IPPN's national fund-raiser, who presented the pledge at the recent WESPAC meeting. The group's goal is to get 1 million Americans to sign the pledge. IPPN has talked at length to the Green Party, The New Party, the Campaign for a New Tomorrow, and the host of other third parties that plan to field some candidates in the November elections."We have people unworthy of public office who are in public office," says an exasperated Tillinghast, herself a veteran of the civil rights movement, having been an organizing secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee from 1964 to 1966. "This is a movement that is not just about building a new party, but holding people accountable," she says. Her rhetoric sounds solid. There is little to argue with, really. But the flurry of third party activity still begs the question: Is all this much ado about nothing? Can these coalitions, third parties and support groups really change the system?Not really, claims Dr. James Campbell, a political science professor at Louisiana State University, and a keen observer of third party activity. "Third parties serve as a pressure valve on the system," he explains. When the major parties see that voters are drifting, they usually co-opt their issues, he explains. "Very few [third parties] get results in elections," he notes. Perot was by far the most successful third party presidential candidate in recent history. George Wallace also had respectable support in 1968, getting 13.5 percent of the popular vote running as an American Independent. Independent John Anderson, who ran in 1980, captured only 7 percent of the popular vote.But Campbell unwittingly offers one hopeful insight. The GOP, our very own Republican Party, was once a third party. Of course, that was way back in the 1850s, when the Republicans replaced the Wigs as a major political force. However, little has changed since the late 19th century. Even the populist and socialist parties, which gained ground at the turn of this century with the foundation of the labor movement, failed to build a viable third party alternative. But who's to say that history can't repeat itself? Can a Green Party or a Reform Party replace the Democratic or Republican parties?CREATING A LEVEL PLAYING FIELDSome pundits have a more positive view than Campbell. Change is possible, but first our political system will have to undergo some real reform, says Robert Ritchie, executive director of the Center for Voting and Democracy. America, he says, is still clinging to the plurality system of government. Ours is a "winner take all system," that puts in office the candidate who has collected the most votes, even if that candidate won with less than 50 percent of the popular vote. Most democracies have abandoned the plurality system for a "proportional" system of government, he adds. All European governments, except for Great Britain and France, have a proportional government, which gives parties seats in the legislature according to the percentage of votes they receive in an election. If the Greens win 20 percent of the vote in an area in Germany, they receive 20 percent of the seats for that district. This method has made the relatively young Green Party the third most powerful political party in that country. In France, although there is not proportional government, there are run-off elections if candidates fail to get 50 percent or more of the popular vote.The plurality system is really a throw-back to America's colonial days, adds Ritchie. Our type of system is found most in former British colonies, a although South Africa recently abandoned it for a proportional system in 1994. There are some municipalities in the United States, including Eugene, Ore., Cambridge, Mass., and San Francisco, where advocates have worked to make these city governments proportional rather than plural.Adding to the third party challenge is the Herculean effort of getting the thousands of signatures needed to place a candidate on a ballot in any given state. New York has been criticized for having rules that make it especially hard for third party presidential candidates.The number of signatures needed to place a candidate on the presidential ballot is 15,000, which is not all that unreasonable, explains Richard Winger, editor of the newsletter Ballot Access News, but the state's picky rules make signature gathering difficult. There have to be at least 100 signatures from each of the 31 congressional districts of the state.In addition, all signatures have to show detailed information that petition signers usually don't know. "In New York City the signatures must be accompanied by a voter's precinct number and the assembly district. Face it, very few people known this," says Winger. "That means that the petition circulators have to look the stuff up It is maddening and there is no good reason for it." The rules have been challenged in court, but challengers have lost.New York state also requires a cover sheet to accompany all petitions. "This tells how many signatures there are. If there is a mistake made on the cover sheet, then the entire petition is no good," adds Winger. "You have to hold your breath and hope you don't make a mistake." There is also another anomaly in the New York system, the election board does not review signatures, but allows all other parties to review each others'. The result is much nit-picking about validity. For this reason, a candidate's supporters usually hustle to gather twice as many signatures than are required.Can all this be worth it? Rob McRoberts, the representative from the local Green Party chapter thinks so. In fact he has quite an expansive vision for the future. Another Green Party candidate in the year 2000; congressional candidates in 1998. He is, he says, working for a complete overhaul of the political system. Is he idealistic? Certainly. Is he foolish? Only time will tell.SIDEBAR: The Money Machine No discussion of political muscle can be complete without talk of money power. "We have the best government money can buy," is the common quip. All candidates who run for party primaries qualify for matching funds if they raise $5,000 or more in a state. This makes it at least possible if not probable, for a nobody from nowhere to win a primary.But it is the general election funds that are the most important. These funds add up to tens of millions. The buck we can opt to give to general election political funds, via our income tax forms, has traditional been given to the two major parties. But that is changing.A party whose candidate wins 5 percent or more of the vote in a presidential election qualifies to receive a percentage of the total amount of money available. In the 1992 presidential election, the Democratic and Republican parties each received $60 million. Ross Perot, running as an Independent in 1992, received almost 20 percent of the popular vote. This may entitle him to $30 million, given that he runs again, and that the rules are expanded to include candidates who run a second time, but who do so under a different party. (Perot will certainly not run as an Independent now that he has his own Reform Party.)The treasures held by the 5 percent rule explains, in part, why the Green Party is so keen to get Nader on the ballot. If he does grab a meager 5 percent of the vote, it could mean millions of dollars in support for the candidate the Greens run in 2000.