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Tri-partisanship in the United States

Last month, the governor of Wyoming signed the state's first ever tri-partisan bill into law, legalizing setups that allow disabled people to ride motorcycles. The week before, a bill sponsored by another third-party state legislator in the state of New York passed with the aim of expanding the state's local agriculture industry, including by creating new paths to connect schools with local farms to prepare fresh, healthy school lunches.


What these two events have in common is that they demonstrate the presence of viable third-parties in the American political system, even if their influence is very limited. Most Americans are unaware of the presence of elected third-party officials in this country. My aim is to correct that misunderstanding and demonstrate that third-party candidacies can be viable on an occasional basis. What I am not here to do is defend or endorse any particular third-party or their platform, or the principle of third-parties in general. Your vote is your own and may be cast for any qualified candidate as you see fit.


The "two-party system" has built up quite the air of mystique around it, to the extent that many voters believe that a third-party vote is a wasted vote and that the dominance of the Republican and Democratic parties is unchallengeable. The history of third-party candidacies and victories says otherwise. A vote is not wasted per se simply because the candidate loses, and not every independent vote will end up with a loss. Politics should not be seen as a zero-sum game of winners and losers.


Below is a view of elected third-partiers and independents in our nation, divided up by level of election.


Local Offices


As much as I wish I had comprehensive data for this, I don't. There are a variety of third-party and independent local officials in the United States. Ron Nirenberg, San Antonio's mayor, is probably one of the most famous. Kshama Sawant, a current Seattle city councilor, is famous for being a member of a communist party. The Libertarian Party, Green Party, and Constitution Party currently claim to have 320, 133, and 25 elected officials nationwide respectively. Cincinnati has their own third-party that has elected various city councilors and mayors over the years. In short, plenty of cities and counties have individual officials who are independents or members of third-parties, though since these offices aren't very prestigious I can't really say a whole lot about them.


State Legislatures


According to the nice people over at Ballotpedia, there are presently thirty-three third-party and independent state representatives (0.6% of the total) and eight such state senators (0.4% of the total) serving in the United States. While these numbers may seem small, these legislators have influence. In the state of Alaska in 2019, independents, Democrats, and Republicans came together to form a multi-partisan coalition to govern the state without the dominance of any individual political party. This coalition elected Bryce Edgmon, a Democrat-turned-independent, as Speaker. The coalition continues to hold four years later, now with a Republican speaker. In another instance of independent power, the state of Louisiana recently passed a new congressional map over the governor's veto with the support of three independents and a Democrat alongside the state's Republicans; without the independents' support, the map couldn't have passed. And, of course, as noted at the beginning, independent and third-party state legislators draft, sponsor, and pass bills just like any other legislators, helping to keep the government running.


Clockwise: The Houses of Representatives of Vermont, Alaska, New York, and Wyoming (Credit: Wikimedia Commons, here, here, here, and here)

Democratic Republican Coalition Republican (AK)

Progressive (VT) Libertarian (WY) Independence (NY) Working Families (NY)

Independent


One other state, Vermont, deserves an extra shout-out due to the strength of the Vermont Progressive Party, a third-party which holds seats in the state legislature and has elected local mayors and city councilors across the state. The party even elected a Lieutenant Governor (separate from the state governor) to serve from 2017 to 2021. Founded as an outgrowth of Bernie Sanders' original campaigns, the party was officially founded in 1999. While they endorse and support Bernie, he is technically not a member of the party.


Governors


Since the year 1972, seven governors have been elected as independents or third-partiers. They are: James Longley from Maine, Wally Hickel from Alaska, Lowell Weicker from Connecticut, Angus King from Maine (now an independent senator), Jesse Ventura from Minnesota, Lincoln Chafee from Rhode Island, and Bill Walker from Alaska. In fact, Walker, who only served one term in the 2010s, is currently running to serve again as Governor. There are plenty of other near-misses: Maine missed electing another independent by under 10,000 votes in 2010; independents racked up over 30% of the vote in Texas in 2006; a popular third-partier came in second ahead of the Republican in Colorado in 2010; and Hawaii also missed electing a third-partier by just over 20,000 votes in 1994. In most of these races, with the exception of Maine in 2010, it is unlikely that the result would have changed without the third-party candidate being in the race, hinting that the "spoiler effect" may be less prevalent than claimed. Third-party and independent candidates can run and win governors' races, even though it may not happen very often.


US House of Representatives


Before 2020, when Michigan representative Justin Amash switched to the Libertarian Party, the last third-partier to serve in the House was New York Conservative William Carney, serving in the early 1980s. Independents are periodically elected, including the famous Bernie Sanders in 1990 (after barely losing in 1988) and Virgil Goode (now a member of the Constitution Party) in 2000. Despite this, victorious independents remain rare. That's not to say that they have no influence, however: Bernie Sanders started as an independent in the House and is now the (still independent) chair of the Senate Budget Committee, though he has become increasingly close to the Democratic Party over time.


US Senate


There are currently two independents in the US Senate, Bernie Sanders (formerly of the House) and Angus King (formerly governor of Maine). Both sit with the Democrats, however, which makes them seem a little less independent in the eye of the beholder. Of course, if either were to switch to sitting with the Republicans, the GOP would control the Senate. This has actually happened fairly recently: Bernie Sanders' predecessor, Jim Jeffords, was originally a Republican but switched to become an independent sitting with the Democrats in 2001. This managed to flip control of the Senate entirely. Only one third-partier, Dean Barkley, has sat in the Senate this century, however, and only for a few weeks after being appointed by his governor; the last person to be elected to the Senate as such was New York Conservative James Buckley in 1970. Independent and third-party wins are possible: we may see another one this year with Evan McMullin running for the Senate from Utah.


In Summary


Though many Americans discount third-party and independent campaigns entirely, the right candidate can win an election. That's not to say every third-partier or independent is the right candidate; while I will refrain from posting any examples out of respect, I'm sure most voters are aware of the difference between competitive and non-competitive candidates. Those third-partiers and independents who win are elected because they were good, competitive candidates -- it's certainly not because of their party. It is not an absolute requirement for candidates to attach themselves to the Republicans or Democrats to be elected, although it certainly helps. Moderates, independents, and all sorts of partisans can relax in the knowledge that alternative arrangements to the two-party system are possible. Look at Alaska: within the last ten years they've had an independent governor and a multi-party coalition govern the state House. Although such setups are presently rare, they may very well represent a taste of America's future.

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