Third Parties Can and Do Win

379712 02: Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura testifies before the Senate International Trade Subcommittee during a hearing on trade policy challenges in 2001 October 5, 2000 on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Photo by Alex Wong/Newsmakers)

“Always vote for principle, though you may vote alone, and you may cherish the sweetest reflection that your vote is never lost.” — President John Quincy Adams

It is often said that a third-party vote is a wasted vote. This is wrong for a whole host of reasons. (Any Democrat in my home state of Utah, by the same standard, wastes their vote every year, as the Democrats never win.) However, those reasons are for another day. Today I wish to present the simple, humble fact that third parties can and do win elections.

At the national level, third parties were represented near-continuously from 1828 to 1950. (This is more than half of our nation’s history.) Third parties have since been ominously excluded from national elections, however, third parties and independents continue to win elections at the state and local level. Here are some of the more interesting third-party stories over the past 250 years of American politics:

The Anti-Masonic Party. The first third party, the Anti-Masons, was defined by their opposition to the Freemasonry movement. They rose and fell quickly in the 1820s and 1830s, but controlled more than a tenth of the House at their peak.

The American Party. Anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic, and anti-slavery, the American (or “Know Nothing”) Party was so successful that they elected a Speaker of the House in 1856. It used to be that occasionally no party would win a majority in the House, so a coalition of two or more parties was needed to run things; this is how the American Party came to prominence. The most recent coalition elected a Speaker in 1919, with Democratic and Socialist Party support.

The Populist Party. Led by dissatisfied farmers and workers, the Populist Party won a number of governorships and congressional seats in the 1890s. The movement prompted major shifts in domestic policy, and most of their goals were eventually implemented: progressive income tax, an end to the gold standard, the direct election of Senators, and the initiative/referendum process at the state level. All of this happened thanks to the Populist movement.

The Farmer-Labor and Progressive Parties. It is often taught that Teddy Roosevelt ran for president in 1912 as a Progressive (and came in second): what is less often taught is that the Progressives won seats in Congress. The progressive movement continued throughout the 1920s and 1930s, electing several governors and state legislatures – namely in Minnesota and Wisconsin – and changing the narrative around left-wing politics in the United States. Eventually, these parties largely merged into the Democratic Party, contributing to its eventual drift away from segregationist politics and towards the center-left.

The American Labour Party. The last stand of third parties at the national level, the American Labor Party elected two members of Congress in the 1940s. The goal was to serve a role similar to the (much larger) Labor Parties in the U.K., Australia, etc. The last bona fide third-party member of Congress in U.S. history, Vito Marcantonio, lost reelection in 1950 to a coalition of Democrats and Republicans in an election marred by new anti-third-party rules and FBI involvement.

A series of governors across the country. In the 1990s and 2000s, a whole series of states across the nation elected third-party and/or independent governors: Minnesota, Alaska, Maine, Connecticut, and Rhode Island, chiefly. Many of these governors were incredibly effective during their terms. In Minnesota, Jesse Ventura promoted pro-LGBTQ+ and pro-marijuana politics at a time when those stands weren’t popular. In Alaska, Wally Hickel dealt with the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez disaster while Bill Walker expanded Medicaid and reduced the state’s dependency on oil. In Maine, James Longley slashed the unemployment rate and provided tax rebates to citizens and Angus King fought for education and the environment. In Connecticut, Lowell Weicker was brave enough to implement the then-controversial income tax. In Rhode Island, Lincoln Chafee legalized same-sex marriage and prepared for climate change back in 2010.

A certain independent from Vermont. In 1990, Bernie Sanders was first elected as an independent, against Democratic and Republican oppositionand was reelected as such in 1992. He remained an independent until 2016, when he joined the Democratic Party in order to run for president. We all know what Bernie Sanders has done for the United States; it would never have been possible without independent voters.

All of this is just an incredibly small sample. Presently, plenty of cities across the country have independent mayors while Wichita, KS (biggest in the state), has a Libertarian mayor. Philadelphia has two third-party city councilors and Alaska’s state legislature is run by bipartisan and independent consent.Vermont has several Progressive Party state legislators, and one independent elected against opposition from both parties is currently serving in the U.S. Senate.

Even in Philadelphia, it is clear that third-party votes matter. Two members of the Working Families Party sit on the city council alongside Democrats and Republicans. They have succeeded in advancing policy, such as garnering millions in new funding for schools, parks, and libraries; establishing a city Department of Labor to protect workers’ rights; prohibiting discrimination between renters by landlords; passing a comprehensive abortion rights package; and recognizing LGBTQ+ Pride Month and Trans Day of Visibility in the city. Would you say that Working Families Party members’ votes didn’t count?

Just because a third-party candidate is unlikely to be elected president doesn’t mean every third-party vote is wasted. Consider voting thirdparty or independent for local and state races. And maybe think twice before judging someone else’s decision to cast their vote as they see fit.

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