Why America Is Stuck With Only Two Parties

In 1848, Free Soil nominated former President Martin van Buren after the Whigs supported slave owner Zachary Taylor for president, and got 10 percent of the national vote. Crucially, they were able to do this after the Whig convention that summer because there were no legal obstacles to getting him on the ballot. Six years later, in July 1854, the Republican Party held its first convention and swept the Michigan statehouse and executive branch that very same year. By 1856, its presidential candidate John Fremont won a third of the popular vote and 114 electoral votes.

That’s no longer possible: Today, third parties can’t mount their own presidential bids after they learn whom the two major parties have nominated—there simply isn’t enough time between the end of primary season and the general election to gain meaningful ballot access in enough states to win an Electoral College victory. Evan McMullin, the former CIA operative who ran for President in 2016 as an anti-Trump alternative to Hillary Clinton, was only able to get on the ballot in 11 states because he entered the race so late. It would’ve been easier in the 1800s: McMullin wouldn’t have had to collect millions of petition signatures and hire expensive lawyers to get on the ballot.

Here’s the underlying problem: the ballot, which was once the property of voters organically organizing themselves into parties, has become the property of state legislatures dominated by the two major parties. The introduction of uniform, printed state ballots—a reform of the late 1800s intended to quash the buying and selling of individual votes—also gave legislatures the power to determine who was qualified to be on the ballot. Republican and Democrat-controlled legislatures swiftly learned that they could use this power to smother rising third parties like the Populist Party, and gave themselves automatic lines on the ballot while instituting onerous petitioning requirements to hinder other upstarts. (When political scientists argue that the first-past-the-post system of awarding representation invariably forces voters into a two-party duopoly, they forget to note that it’s only when ballot lines are so rigidly guarded that two specific parties, in this case the Ds and the Rs, manage to artificially lock themselves in power.)

Between 2010 and 2012, businessman Peter Ackerman attempted to jerry-rig a path through this thicket by paying for professional petition-gatherers to qualify a new shell of a party called “Americans Elect” on state ballots. He and his colleagues hoped to set up a national online primary and lure someone—most likely former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg—into seeking its nomination. But Ackerman’s plan had a fatal flaw: He needed other people’s money to pay for ballot access, and because Americans Elect needed to scale fast and risked alienating the political establishment, he promised his donors secrecy. This just fuelled the rumors that, as one New York Times columnist wrote, his party was taking in some “serious hedge-fund money.” After spending $35 million, Americans Elect had a ballot line in just 29 states and a paltry turnout for its national primary. No one was clamoring for a new “centrist” third-party, least of all one suspiciously beholden to the same kinds of fat cats dominating the two major parties.

People like Glover, who hold out hope that another centrist party like Americans Elect might surface in 2020, often respond to the naysayers with the fact that polls indicate widespread interest in a third party. It’s true that today, 61 percent of Americans tell Gallup they like the idea of a third major party—but in 2007, 58 percent said so, and in 2010, 58 percent said so, and in 2013, 60 percent said so, and no such party broke through, not even Ackerman’s, which had plenty of money to get on the ballot and the support in the same class of “politically orphaned political strategists, academics and donors” who Glover says are now, once again, ready to lend a hand. As Ackerman demonstrated, these do not amount to a mass base, let alone a rump.