Photo: State Library of WA on Flickr (Creative Commons)

Third Parties Can’t Compete Without Electoral Reform

One of the more persistent philosophical and strategic divisions on the American left is between those who advocate conducting electoral politics primarily within the Democratic Party, a strategy called entryism, and those who advocate conducting electoral politics primarily via third parties. Entryists argue that an electoral strategy focused on third party politics is impossible in a first-past-the-post system such as the one used in most elections in the United States. Third-partyists argue that an electoral strategy that seeks to influence the Democratic Party from within will inevitably find itself co-opted and defanged by neoliberalism.

Both sides are, of course, correct. It is indeed impossible, under the current system, to achieve major electoral success outside of the Democratic Party. It is also impossible to transform the Democratic Party, in thrall as it is to capital, into a true workers’ party. There is a way out of this impasse: we must commit ourselves to reforming the electoral system and eliminating first past the post as a necessary precondition of third party politics. Achieving electoral reform in the United States will be a tall order, to be sure, but it is much more achievable a goal than transforming the Democratic Party into a socialist party or turning Socialist Alternative or some other grouping into a nationwide actor. Once achieved, electoral reform will allow us to embark on the project of building a true worker’s party as a real electoral force. This means that we must stop treating electoral reform as a minor afterthought: it must be one of the pillars of our politics.

Review of terms:

First past the post: Also known as single-member plurality, the electoral system used in the vast majority of American elections. Whichever candidate earns the most votes in the general election wins, even if a majority of voters would have preferred another candidate. This system inevitably favors the development of a two-party system due to the “spoiler effect,” in which two candidates with similar views split the vote and allow a politician with less popular views but more consolidated support to win. A well-known example is the 2000 presidential election, where Al Gore and Ralph Nader split the left-wing vote enough for George W. Bush to carry Florida—and with it the election. Voting for a third party candidate as a leftist is a risky proposition under first past the post, because you run the risk of inadvertently throwing the election to the Republican candidate.

Ranked choice voting: Also known as ranked preference and instant runoff, the electoral system used in Australia and several American cities, including Minneapolis, as well as for most elections in Maine, beginning with the June 2018 primaries. It’s seen by many as the most achievable serious electoral reform, and the one favored by the advocacy group FairVote. This system eliminates the spoiler effect that plagues first past the post, and allows third parties to participate on a level playing field.

There are other possible electoral systems, including the nonpartisan blanket primary or jungle primary (used in several American cities, including Chicago, and in the states of California, Louisiana, and Washington) and mixed-member proportional representation (used in Germany), but for the purposes of this article “electoral reform” will refer to ranked choice, which is more effective than jungle primaries at promoting third party viability and more achievable than mixed-member proportional representation in the American context.

There are three possible avenues for electoral reform:

Constitutional amendment: to eliminate the electoral college and implement ranked choice for the presidency, to eliminate the presidency altogether, to implement mixed-member proportional representation for the House, to eliminate or neuter the Senate. This is pie in the sky stuff—the states have ratified only a single constitutional amendment in the past 40 years and there’s no reason to believe an amendment this consequential could succeed.

Legislative action:

  1. At the state level: to implement ranked choice for Senate, House, gubernatorial, state legislative, mayoral, and city council races, to de facto eliminate the electoral college via the national interstate popular vote compact.
  2. At the local level: to implement ranked choice for mayoral and city council races.
  3. At the federal level: to implement ranked choice everywhere simultaneously.

Ballot initiative, in states and municipalities with provision for such:

  1. At the state level: same as 2a.
  2. At the local level: same as 2b.

Option 1 is impossible given present political conditions and 2c is only slightly less impossible (though the Fair Representation Act, which essentially combines ranked-choice voting and multi-member districts, is a promising start), so we can take those off the table.

In states without provision for ballot initiatives, or where ballot initiatives cannot change the state constitution (and where the state constitution enshrines first past the post), the only options are therefore 2a and 2b. In states and municipalities with provision for ballot initiatives, 3a and 3b are likely to be by far the most promising avenues for reform. In the Midwest, ballot initiatives can directly amend the state constitution in Illinois, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and South Dakota. Many cities allow ballot initiatives to reform their own electoral systems as well.

DSA should make support for legislative action to eliminate first past the post (at all three levels of government) a non-negotiable condition of endorsement, but this is not likely to pay off in the short term above the local level, as the two major parties share an overwhelming incentive not to participate in electoral reform. The DSA should also make joining the national interstate popular vote compact a non-negotiable condition of endorsement in states that have not yet joined (in the Midwest, only Illinois has joined the compact).

In states and cities with provision for ballot initiatives, the DSA should coordinate with electoral reform groups like FairVote to place ranked choice on the ballot wherever and whenever possible. Several cities have successfully passed municipal ranked choice via ballot initiative, and Maine passed ranked choice for federal- and state-level races in 2016 (though its implementation has been in constant question, thanks to a string of legal challenges from the state Republican Party).

Electoral reform is quite popular. The general public is aware that something is wrong with our voting system, as evidenced by the success of the campaign for an anti-gerrymandering initiative in Michigan, and everyone hates the two-party system. As Maine found, a serious push to implement ranked choice via ballot initiative will find a receptive audience among the electorate. Rather than endlessly relitigate the pros and cons of entryism, let us build a political system where the vagaries of first past the post are no longer relevant.