Free Minds & Free Markets

How Third Parties Are Getting Screwed This Election Season

Republicans and Democrats hate each other. They love their own power even more.

Republicans and Democrats may genuinely hate each other, but they love their own power even more. That's why they collude so often to keep those pesky Libertarians, Greens, and independents away from the lucrative levers of government.

The 2018 midterms have been chock full of two-party shenanigans, all too often aided and abetted by journalists, pollsters, and the voters themselves.

It all starts with ballot access. If a state government considers you a "major party," getting on the ballot is a snap. Worst-case scenario, you need to collect signatures from a tiny fraction of your own registered voter base. Best case, you just show up.

Third-party and independent candidates, on the other hand, have to collect tens of thousands of signatures in some states—15,000 to run for governor in New York, for example, including at least 100 in each congressional district. Arizona Republicans recently changed the law to say that Libertarians need to collect signatures not just from their own members but from registered independents as well. And by the way, the Green Party is subject to a less stringent set of rules, which is why there's a Green but not a Libertarian running in Arizona's neck-and-neck U.S. Senate race.

Some states push their filing deadlines all the way back to a year before the election. That's one of many reasons why candidates such as Evan McMullin, when they get a sudden itch to run for president, are lucky to make it on even a dozen ballots.

New Hampshire this year herded all third parties under the same ballot line, confusingly titled "Libertarians and Other Candidates." New Mexico tried—and thankfully failed—to institute a "straight party" ballot, meaning voters in this 3–2 Democratic state could automatically vote for all the candidates in one party by checking off just one box.

Gary Johnson's surging poll numbers, I am sure, were purely coincidental.

Getting your name on the ballot doesn't mean it will be included in the polls. The Nevada race for U.S. Senate is universally rated a tossup, and yet the first three independent polls released this October failed to include Libertarian Tim Hagan, even though previous surveys had him at around four percent.

How about debates? Pennsylvania Senate candidate Dale Kerns was assured of a spot on stage, then uninvited. Texas gubernatorial candidate Mark Tippets was told he didn't have enough qualifying press, in part because his coverage in the Spanish-language media didn't count. In Texas. Iowa governor candidate Jake Porter, who's polling higher than any other L.P. statehouse contender, says his debate invitations were rescinded, in part because he refused to buy commercials.

"The freer and more general the competition," Adam Smith wrote in 1776, the more "advantageous" it will be to the public. Competitors, he warned, will "always" try "to widen the market and to narrow the competition." For too long we have allowed our system of government, that other glorious achievement from 1776, to be controlled by the market-rigging forces Smith warned us about. It's about time to make American politics competitive again.

Written by Matt Welch. Camera by Jim Epstein. Edited by Alexis Garcia.

Photo credits: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/Newscom, Hill Street Studios Blend Images/Newscom

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Photo Credit: Hill Street Studios Blend Images/Newscom

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  • ||

    Here in New Mexico there are adds that suggest collusion with certain orgs in regards to the straight party ticket vote.
    There is an entire campaign pushing the straight ticket called "don't stop at the top". They parties in question must have been upset that their one check box straight ballot was thwarted.

  • Mickey Rat||

    While some of the manipulations of law should not be allowed, debates are joint press conferences. No candidate has a guaranteed seat at someone else's table. You want a seat at debate table? Become big enough that they cannot afford to ignore you.

  • Billy Bones||

    I vehemently disagree. If there is a person on my ballot, I, as a voting citizen, have the right to hear that person express/defend their views about the future of that government. If you receive only 2/3 or 1/2 of all available information, you cannot make an informed decision. This applies to everything, including political candidates.

  • Mickey Rat||

    You can tell the people running the debates that that is what you want to see, but you do not have a right for them to provide it for you.

  • Bluwater||

    Debates [such that they are] are not government functions. They are private organizations that have put in the work and time to do what they want to do. You also have a right to put your own debate format together and ask candidates to show, but you have no right to demand that someone else include the candidate of your choice.

    You also have a right to go out and promote your candidate and get him over the minimum threshold that most organizations require. You may have a right to hear someone who has a right to speak, but you don't have the right to force anyone to make that happen.

  • JFree||

    Actually they are joint press conferences with provisions for both the press and the DeRps that they will not undermine or compete with that formal debate schedule/agenda in any way whatsoever. With DeRp control of legislatures in their entirety to ensure that there is a huge govt penalty imposed on any attempt to exercise freedom of the press. They are de facto government establishment of the press.

    Which is technically I suppose entirely constitutional. So as long as DeRp voters aren't much interested in really protecting the 1A, it will continue.

  • sarcasmic||


    I'm like totally stealing that.

  • E. Zachary Knight||

    Oklahoma has gotten significantly better in the last 3 years, but it is still tough. The Libertarian Party was able to get on the ballot in 2016 but the Green party was still not able to afford the cost of petitioning.

    The legislature also passed a bill with no other intention than to reduce the number of people running for office. This bill doubled the filing fees to run for office. It also increased the petition in lieu of the filing for all minor parties in the districts. It was a seemingly "minor" change but had a big impact on the Libertarian Party. The old petition requirement was 4% of voters eligible to vote for you on the first ballot you appear. For recognized parties, that is 4% of your potential primary voters. For Independents, it is 4% of all voters in the district. The new requirement is now 2% of all voters in the district for all candidates. This had little impact for whatever party was in the majority and actually cut in half the number of signatures independents needed. But if you are a minor party, your potential petition jumped from a potential 20 signatures to over a thousand for a state house race.

  • E. Zachary Knight||

    As for polling and debates, Libertarian Governor Candidate Chris Powell has been left off nearly every poll published and many debate organizers have used his numbers from those rigged polls to exclude him. He hasn't been excluded from all debates and forums, but his Democratic and Republican challengers have been invited to all of them.

  • NoVaNick||

    Libertarians must all vote straight Democrat ticket this election because only Democrats will protect their rights/OBL

  • Bluwater||

    ROFL! Okay Hillary!

  • Gus diZerega||

    If third parties had competent leadership, which they do not, they would realize that plurality elections guarantee many potential supporters will never vote for them because they would be spoilers. Therefore they would push state and local initiatives to replace plurality elections with ranked choice voting- as Maine voters established, but with third parties not the major players in achieving it,

    When third parties push for ranked choice voting they will attract better candidates and not be spoilers. Then they will be worth supporting. Not until then.

    On ranked choice voting see

  • antiestablismentarianism||

    I've been trying to push this idea of ranked choice voting for a long time now, but I didn't realize it had a name until now. I don't agree about the third party leadership argument though because how is a third party able to push such an initiative when they don't have a voice in the legislature? I also argue that the Libertarians need to focus more on local and municipal elections before moving into national politics, but that argument seems to fall on deaf ears most of the time. I am glad to see lower level offices being targeted by Libertarians now, but they are just not low enough.

  • Gus diZerega||

    They can do it the way it was done in Maine- state initiatives. RCV is never a measure the major parties will like for obvious reasons, unless the system obviously breaks down, as it did in Maine. The irony is that so far as I can tell, while local Green and Libertarian Parties supported the initiative, they did not initiate it. THAT is what I mean about incompetent leaders. In my opinion most are in it for ego, not for actually making a change.

    I would LOVE being proven wrong by third parties pushing state and local initiatives for RCV.

  • Paul Hager||

    There are many types of "ranked choice" voting - the main ones are Condorcet, Borda, and Instant Runoff Voting (IRV). IRV works by using a discard algorithm that mimics a multi-round runoff. Proponents of IRV have been pushing it for decades without success – now they call it "ranked choice" and act as if the other systems don't exist.

    The discard algorithm is the reason IRV is hardly better than what we have now. Neither Borda nor Condorcet discard information but Condorcet is the only known voting system that will find the true majority winner – the candidate who beats all the others head-to-head.

    Neither voters nor lawmakers seem to understand that the discard algorithm is equivalent to throwing votes away, thus IRV could be challenged in states with voter intent laws.

    IRV was proposed in Indiana. I submitted a detailed white paper discussing its problems, both practical and legal, and showed the superiority of Condorcet.

    The Condorcet Internet Voting Service has some useful info about Condorcet (

  • Paul Hager||

    One other item. Rather than ranked voting, there is Approval Voting (AV). It has been adopted in Fargo, ND. AV will not always find the true majority winner like Condorcet but it functions pretty well and is vastly superior to IRV. AV is very simple: just cast votes for every candidate you like. Easy to understand and easy to count. Also, doesn't throw votes away like IRV.

  • Headache||

    It is obvious that party above principle also affects Libertarians.

  • Arizona_Guy||

    For the first time in 20 years, there are no LP candidates on the AZ ballot. Now you know why.

    Back in 2012, IIRC, several LP candidates got more votes than the margin of victory. The AZ GOP called them 'spoilers'. The GOP controlled legislature increased the signature requirements by orders of magnitude.

    The LP had a gov candidate who got enough signatures this year, but the state GOP threw so many legal challenges at him that he ran out of money and had to quit.

  • Mcgoo95||

    I voted mainly Democrat for the first time this year mainly out of spite....and I don't want a stupid wall in my backyard, also.

  • Hattori Hanzo||

    The signatures, though, were legitimately challenged. The paid petitioner was not on the up and up. Lesson learned for the future.

    I couldn't bring myself to vote for Democrats.

  • Arizona_Guy||

    I almost want to just throw my ballot in the shredder.

  • Hattori Hanzo||

    I was able to vote Libertarian in non-partisan races (mayor of Phoenix and Central Arizona Water Conservation). Barry Hess is a qualified write-in for US Senate but I opted to vote for the Green Party candidate for US Senate and governor to help them maintain ballot access. In all other races I cast write-in votes.

  • vek||

    In all fairness, I DO think 3rd parties can be spoilers often. Which is why we should have ranked choice voting. I still usually vote L anyway because in my area the Ds have everything on lock down. I do vote R for the couple races where they might have a snowballs chance in hell. It will be interesting to see if the Rs do better without Ls on the ballot this go round.

  • Joseph C. Moore (USN Ret.||

    The two parties have different ideologies but the collusion of these ESTABLISMENT politicians make the two party sytem (in actuality) a DUOPOLY. As a Libertarian, I am appalled that third parties are almost never given any credence or fair footing with the Republicans or Democrats. I am still seething at the treatment given to Dr Ron Paul in his run for the presidency. That was a disgraceful move on the part of the Republican establishment in order to firm their base of the naive public.

  • Mcgoo95||

    Agreed. I actually registered Republican so I could vote in the primary for RP. After seeing how he was treated, re-registered Independent and will never go back. Fuck the Republicans and fuck the Democrats. They both suck. The pendulum will swing harder the next round until it falls over, which is inevitable given our trajectory. It'll be interesting to see who wins this foolish game. Unfortunately, I know who will lose.

  • Liberty Lover||

    "How Third Parties Are Getting Screwed This Election Season" This election season? That would be every election season. This is nothing new, it has been going on for decades. Probably since the Whigs disappeared and the Republicans appeared.


    They have always been screwed for a variety of reasons...number 1, they almost always take a way from one of the big two depending on the candidate so it is a bipartisan issue from the top. States should review their ballot acceptance and if the candidate say for President is on all 50 states then they should be included as their designate party in debates. If a State election, if they are on the ballot they should be included. The two party system is exclusive and the measures to deter a third party are fascist and not indicative of a free society.

  • Dadlobby||

    Good luck changing NY, Tammany politics has gotten so bad that even the NY Rino-publicans can't get elected to statewide office. Prince Andrew Cuomo is running a machine so full of graft Boss Tweed would be envious. And moderates and conservatives are fleeing the state in droves. Larry Sharpe is making inroads for Libertarians and it is the Rino-publican candidate who is the spoiler for him.

  • texexpatriate||

    As a matter of curiosity, do any of you writers or editors at Reason really expect this to change? I would guess the only way it might change would be a break-up of the nation and subsequent reformation of political parties in the new nations that resulted. The corruption and plain-Jane criminality at both state and national levels today strikes me as too formidable ever to be overcome by handfuls of voting citizens. Not only that, but it is the rare honest person who elects to run for office at the state or national level.

  • JFree||

    I would guess the only way it might change would be a break-up of the nation...The corruption and plain-Jane criminality at both state and national levels today strikes me as too formidable ever to be overcome by handfuls of voting citizens.

    I don't think you need a breakup. What you need is for 'handfuls of citizens' to actually give a shit about their own representational power - and VOTE like they give a shit. Legislatures that are frozen in size while the population grows are a direct reduction of that power. The vacuum is filled by incumbents (challengers become burdened), lobbyists (citizens lose their voice), parties (legislators have to become more loyal), and bigmoney (elections become wholesale).

    The US House was fixed at 435 at the 1910 census with 92MM peeps and 15MM voters. It is 435 today with 323MM peeps and 137MM voters. It would need to have grown to 1530 - 3970 for indiv peeps/voters to have the same power over critters we had then. Many states are even worse - CA had 80 in Assembly in 1880 with fewer than 1MM peeps - 80 today with 39MM peeps.

    Every single third party should have this as a major issue they can ALL agree on - not just for themselves either. It could also be an issue for every junior incumbent (they are winners in this too) - if voters tell them it is important.

  • vek||

    Adding reps is a worthwhile goal in and of itself... One of the biggest advantages is simply that there wouldn't be enough slush money to buy off double, or triple the number of people in congress! It would almost insta improve corruption.

    But it wouldn't necessarily make anybody vote 3rd party. It's possible that in hyper extreme political areas, a more extreme version of a left/right party might win. Think Greens in SF or Seattle, or Libertarians/Constitution Party or whatever in other areas. But it wouldn't necessarily play out like that. It could just mean more Rs and Ds on the federal payroll. Which, as I said above still wouldn't be a bad thing.

  • JFree||

    I agree that the issue goes way beyond third-party self-interest and that it's not a given that they'll benefit. They would still need to win an actual district with constituents.

    I think the issue itself is now constitutional - The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government. Supreme Court has quite overtly said that they won't get involved in interpreting it. But the actual combo of lifetime incumbency (with virtual seat inheritance in many cases), gerrymandered districts where legislators choose their constituents rather than constituents choosing their legislators, elections only winnable now with the financial backing of oligarchs. At some point, individuals lose their ability to affect their own governance - and once lost, it will be gone forever.

  • vek||

    There are lots of things that would need to change to make our system not so tilted against 3rd parties.

    Ranked choice voting would probably do the most in the simplest way. We could have some system where a pool of reps are elected based on percentages of vote totals too, as some parliamentary systems do it. Ballot access stuff is fine and well too, but being on the ballot doesn't usually do much for actually winning elections. The above options would do that. Variations on how people are selected are why there are far more minor parties in most other countries in the world.

    Until then, for people that are serious about change through 3rd parties... They should probably run for the proverbial "Dog Catcher" type positions. I know a lady who was elected water commissioner in a decent sized town, after working in that department as a hired employee, because nobody cared enough to run. I'm sure nobody had a clue about the differences between her and her opponent, and she probably just won because people liked her name better than the other guy or whatever! She implemented what changes she could, being fought tooth and nail by all her new underlings. But she got a few things done. If 100,000 libertarians did this across the country, that could be A LOT of small wins. That's as good as it gets until major changes happen to the way we do elections.

  • How to Fix Broken Zipper||

    I argue that the Libertarians need to focus more on local and municipal elections before moving into national politics, but that argument seems to fall on...


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