What’s the matter with our government today? Why has our political world descended into such ugly partisanship, and why don’t politicians more often address and act upon the real issues that affect us all? In many ways it is because the two main political parties have become more and more alike, and increasingly comfortable with the status quo.  

But there is a way for us to get our political “leaders” again to confront real issues, and that is to allow third-party voices to be an accepted part of the political process. Comfortable main party candidates won’t take positions until they are forced to, and real competition is the only way for that to occur.

  Historically, third parties have played a critical role in American politics in at least two different ways. On several occasions, a third party has actually risen to become a main party, although the last time that happened was when the Republicans took over from the Whig Party in the middle 1850s. However, many times over the years third parties have voiced new ideas that have resonated well with the voters, with the result that soon these ideas were assimilated into the mainstream of political thought. It is this new blood that has helped to keep the American political process vibrant and responsive.

  But mostly today our entire system seems to be weighted against third-party voices. The gerrymandering of congressional districts by the two main parties has kept political races non-competitive. Political pollsters don’t include the names of third party candidates because their campaigns are not covered by the media, and therefore not known to the public. And the media do not cover the third-party campaigns because they do not get good polling numbers. So with this vicious circle, it is almost impossible for third-party candidates to break out of obscurity, unless they are able to be self-financed like the campaign of Ross Perot.

  How can this cycle be broken? The best way is voter unrest, and that is beginning to be seen. However, a good intermediate step would be to allow every candidate that is on a statewide ballot in some fashion to be a part of every public debate. Obviously, if there were too many candidates, this format would be unwieldy, and the debate itself boring. But there are remedies for these practical problems.

  One remedy would be to allow each candidate that is on enough ballots technically to win a particular statewide or national election to make at least a three-minute statement at the beginning of a debate? This would allow the voters to hear and consider each candidate’s most important issues first hand. In addition, every candidate with a serious campaign should be allowed to participate fully in every debate. Most of the time it would be fairly obvious which candidates were involved with serious campaigns. Do they have a formal headquarters, a paid staff, organized fundraising and a major commitment to spending the time necessary for the campaign? If so, the voters will be cheated if that candidate’s voice is not heard.

  In the last California debate involving the U.S. Senate candidates from only the two main parties, there was little focus upon the issues because each candidate had staked out a “safe” position. As a result, there was no discussion about issues like the Patriot Act, possible drug policy reform, a possible amendment to the three strikes laws, viable health care programs, or the present war in Iraq. Had there been a third voice, it is quite likely that these issues would have been fully and interestingly explored.

  Finally, the thing that would most breathe life into our democracy would be the adoption of the “instant runoff” voting procedure. This would allow all voters to vote for their first and also their second choices in each election. Then when the votes are counted, if it is determined that a particular voter’s first choice is not one of the top two contenders, by pressing a button on a computer, there could be an immediate “runoff” election of those top two candidates in which that voter’s second choice vote would then be counted. This procedure would address both the “don’t waste your vote” and the voting for the “lesser of two evils” syndromes, and would actually revitalize both our political campaigns and our elections.

  There is an old saying that the cure for defects in a democracy is more democracy. Third parties have a major role to play in our democratic system. However, today they are being frozen out of the process. The result of this freeze is quite good for established politicians and for the two major parties, but it is harmful for everyone else. Third party candidates have much to add to the free-flow of ideas. If their voices are stifled, democracy loses.

Judge Jim Gray (Ret.)