Growing pains.

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Two Parties Aren't Enough for All U.S. Voters

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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Millions of Americans are going to vote for someone other than Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in November. The Libertarian Gary Johnson and the Green Party candidate Jill Stein together command about 10 percent of the vote in recent polls. Yet their supporters, who feel alienated from the two-party system, probably don't want their country to adopt a European-style multiparty parliamentary democracy, either.

For many third-party voters, the realization that the two major parties don't represent them occurred well before they were faced with the choice between Clinton and Trump. The problem is deeper than those candidates' personal unpopularity. That's why their emergence at the top of their respective party hierarchies may just be a catalyst for the U.S. political system to evolve.

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Nicole Castor Silva, 36, a small business owner in Sacramento, California, was a registered Democrat who saw no point in voting for third parties, even though she wasn't happy with the way she was being represented. "I'd always see them saying one thing but then doing another," she says of the Democrats. "I expected compromise but it always ends up with the people being the ones who compromise our rights and privileges."

Obamacare was the final straw. She hoped the plan would achieve universal coverage but knew it would be watered down. "What we ended up with was a clandestine tax hike," Castor Silva says. "I'm at the income level where I don't qualify for assistance but I also have a lot of bills like student loan debt. So I end up having to pay the tax penalty, which is an enormous amount of money." She's planning to vote for Stein.

Hugh McDonnell, 44, a handyman from Wichita Falls, Texas, says the moment of truth was when "Rand Paul was disenfranchised at the 2012 Republican convention." He'd always backed the libertarian strain in the Republican Party, "but alas: We looked into how to become registered Libertarians."

Billy Dele, a 22-year-old business major from Springfield, Virginia, was turned off the major parties when he participated in the Occupy movement in 2011. "Many of my friends at the time were Libertarian or Green," says the Green Party supporter.

The conversions predate the Trump-Clinton runoff, but they are all relatively recent. And they are part of a trend: in 2008, 38 percent of registered voters said they would consider a generic third-party nominee, but in a Wall Street Journal poll in May, that share had increased to 47 percent. I asked third-party voters why the duopoly has survived despite their growing numbers. For the most part, they blamed a lack of information about the alternatives. 

"I was talking to my kids' day-care family and they are conservative-leaning but care about environmental issues," Castor Silva said. "The mother tells me she doesn't like Clinton and Trump. I don't support Johnson but I told her about him. She didn't know he was an option. This is very typical."

Although I understand that Johnson and Stein get less coverage than Clinton and Trump because they do less well in the polls, their backers take a different approach: In their eyes, these candidates are less popular simply because they are less able to get their message out than the well-heeled major party politicians. "I didn't learn about Jill or Gary from any of the TV networks or newspapers," says Matt Orfalea, 31, a Stein supporter from Washington who describes his occupation as YouTuber. "Jill Stein has had a single appearance on PBS, but there's always wall-to-wall coverage of Trump and Hillary."

I doubt much could be done about the media's propensity for covering politics as sports. I live in Berlin, the German city-state where a recent election put six parties in the city council, none with the remotest shot at the majority. Yet the coverage there centered on the leader, the Social Democratic Party, on the biggest loser --  Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union -- and the surprise gainer, the far-right Alternative for Germany. It's unlikely that the mainstream media will ever feel it's their duty to educate voters about alternatives to the establishment: These parties spring up because enough people want them. The U.S. third-party voters know that. Most of them believe the situation will evolve as more people get their news from the internet and the social networks. "We cannot wait for media to come to us," Castor Silva says.

The current system's outsiders do have a strong argument, however, in calling for their candidates' right to participate in debates. As things stand, a candidate must achieve 15 percent support in polls to be eligible. Only the major party candidates, but not the public, would suffer if the list of debate participants expanded: They'd need more preparation. Voters, however, would get more information about legitimate alternatives to politicians who would not be their first choice.

Another reason no strong third party has come forward despite the demand is history. McDonnell blames Ross Perot, who had the resources to build a credible alternative to the established parties but failed to carry it through. There were other attempts, including Ralph Nader's run in 2000, which may have cost Al Gore the presidency. After that debacle, potential third-party leaders have shunned acting as spoilers who might strengthen the hand of an undesirable Republican or Democratic candidate. Michael Bloomberg, the principal owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News,  thought of running this year but gave up that idea in part because he felt his bid could draw voters away from Hillary Clinton and help Donald Trump. 

Third-party voters feel some rule changes are in order to level out the playing field. Yet they don't like the idea of moving toward a European-style parliamentary system: They see it as the same kind of establishment oligopoly as in the U.S. with the ruling parties indistinguishable from each other. Besides, as far as they are concerned, it doesn't work any better than the current American system -- worse, if anything.

"Europe is burning," McDonnell says.

Instead all the third-party supporters I've talked to are in favor of a system backed by Fairvote, a voting-reform group: ranked-choice voting. Under such a system, a voter ranks candidates in order of preference. "If we had a ranked choice now, I would not even consider Clinton or Trump as options," Castor Silva says. 

The system is used, for example, in the Irish presidential elections. Voters rank the candidates. The weakest is eliminated, and his votes go to the politician who was next on his voters' list. The procedure is repeated until only the winner is left. The procedure breaks down the two-horse race mentality. Under such a system, no candidate is a "spoiler" or "the lesser of two evils."

Voter turnout in the U.S. trails most developed countries. Non-voters are inundated with information about major party candidates, but they are not moved to support either of them and are either ignorant about alternatives or skeptical that voting third party could change anything -- a correct assumption under the current plurality system.

"Your vote is never wasted if you vote for something you believe in," Dele says. "What will be a waste is going to a voting booth for someone you don't agree with." Perhaps the abstainers think that way, too -- that's why they don't vote. In that case, they are an enormous resource for politicians with the courage to mount a serious challenge to the two-party system -- not in this electoral cycle, but perhaps as soon as the next one.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net