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Third party candidates excluded from spotlight, still give voters more options

After the arrest of Green Party candidate Laura Wells during the Oct 12 gubernatorial debate between Democrat Jerry Brown and Republican Meg Whitman, concerns have come up about the lack of exposure third party candidates receive during elections.

Wells was arrested while trying to enter and participate in a debate between the two major candidates. Though the third party candidates have been able to participate in some public debates this year, Wells and other independent candidates feel they have been barred from the most well publicized debates.

The existence of third parties in American politics extends back to the end of the Civil War, when the two-party political system was created, according to Mills Visiting Assistant Professor of Public Policy, Robert Brown.

Since then, third parties have remained an integral part of American politics, according Brown, but have been held back from major political success because of institutional and demographic barriers.

The American electoral system is a huge part of the political institution holding third party candidates back from winning elections, according to Mills Government Professor Martha Johnson. One of the main reasons for this is that the American electoral system uses single member districts, meaning it only allows there to be one winner for each position. This is different than many parliamentary systems, which often use proportional representation, allowing all parties to be represented based on the percentage of votes they receive.

Jonson also mentioned that third parties tend to be issue-based, meaning they attract voters based upon a current problem. This makes it difficult for third parties to remain strong for extended periods of time, as issues are constantly changing in importance to voters.

“Third parties emerge to address a certain problem,” Johnson said. Once the problem is solved or is considered less important, the third party tends to be co-opted by one of the major parties. Once the major party takes over the third party’s platform, the third party tends to disappear.

“Third parties become a way of changing what the two parties believe,” Johnson said.

Brown has observed connections between the Populist Party of the 19th century and the Tea Party of today.

“They (the Populist Party) were mostly white agrarians and were anti-city” he said, noting that a lot of the Tea Party rhetoric used today mimics that of William Jennings Bryan, a well known Populist politician in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, famous for his fight against the teaching of evolution in public schools.

It is the similarities between these two parties that has led Brown to predict the Tea Party’s future in American politics. Like the Populist Party, which fused with the Democratic Party in the early 20th century, Brown thinks the Tea Party will eventually fuse together with the Republican Party. If this were to happen, the Republican Party would have to take positions on certain issues (such as immigration and religion) that may push away mainstream voters, said Brown.

“I personally hope that’s what happens,” he said. When this happened to the Populist Party and the Democratic Party, so many voters were pushed away that the Republican Party enjoyed 30 years of dominance in politics.

Despite the strong influence third parties can have on American politics, Brown does not see them as a threat to the two-party system in the United States. Instead, he believes the third parties will continue to shape and alter how the Democratic and Republican Parties appeal to their constituents.

“The third party can affect the election,” Brown said, noting that major party candidates can lose a pivotal number of votes from vote splitting, or, when a strong third party candidate steals votes from the main candidate. “I mean, Ralph Nader elected George Bush.”

Though the two-party system in America may never truly become a multi-party system, some believe there is an increase in voter support of third party candidates.

Chelene Nightingale, 45, is running as an Independent, but is representing the Constitution Party (or Tea Party) in this gubernatorial election. She has observed an increase in interest in third party candidates, over the past few years.

“Americans are frustrated,” she said. “And they are looking for alternatives.”

One of the biggest challenges Nightingale has faced during this election is the inequality among candidates.

“Elections are not free and equal,” she said. She was frustrated that she and other third party candidates were not allowed to participate in the gubernatorial debates.

“That’s the opposite of liberty,” she said.

Members of the Mills community are also concerned about the equality of elections.

Deborah Long, the M Center Operations Manager, was also frustrated that third party candidates were unable to participate in the gubernatorial debates this year.

“I think that if more candidates are allowed to participate in widely publicized debates, the voters will be benefit by hearing more perspectives,” she said. “That could even produce a greater range of creative solutions because it would get people to think.”

Laura Wells, the Green Party candidate in this gubernatorial election, understands first hand the challenges third party candidates face when they try to enter public debates. Wells was arrested when she tried to enter the Oct 12 gubernatorial debate between Meg Whitman and Jerry Brown.

“If the four independent candidates are not included in the debate, then it’s not a debate,” she said. Wells said she chose to run in the gubernatorial election despite its many challenges because “California’s worth it.”

Another problem third party candidates face is raising money for campaigning, according to Nightingale.

“Every candidate should have the same spending limit,” she said. Between Jan 1 and Oct 16 of this year, Whitman spent a total of $143,651,194.28 on her campaign. Nightingale spent a total of $50,416.71 on her campaign during that same time period.

Nightingale also expressed how important she felt women leaders are in today’s politics.

“To restore our country, we really need the women,” she said.

Her biggest piece of advice for women pursuing leadership positions is to not “take anything personal.”

Other third party candidates in this election include Carlos Alvarez, the Peace and Freedom candidate, and Dale Ogden,  the Libertarian candidate, both of whom were unavailable for comment.

For more information on the gubernatorial candidates in this election, visit this post.