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Davis, California

Friday, April 12, 2024

Will COVID-19 block third-party ballot access?

The current pandemic is revealing critical flaws in the American electoral system

Howie Hawkins. Jacob Hornberger. Don Blankenship.

Yes, these are real names. But do you know who they are? They are the current leading nominees for the respective Green, Libertarian and Constitution parties.

 If you’re a political junkie, you are probably familiar with Blankenship. The former West Virginia coal mining executive has experienced occasional cameos in national headlines: first, for a trial concerning a mine explosion that killed 29 people in 2010 and later, for a bizarre 2018 Senate run where he declared himself “Trumpier than Trump” and ran ads referring to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell as “Cocaine Mitch.” To a lesser degree, you may also be familiar with Hawkins, the environmental activist who co-founded the Green Party just over two decades ago.

But for most Americans, these names are simply more faces in the crowd. 

The national appeal of a viable third-party candidate has increased in recent weeks by the possible entry of two figures with significant name recognition: Justin Amash and Jesse Ventura. Amash, a current U.S. representative from Michigan and frequent critic of President Donald Trump, announced the formation of an exploratory committee aimed at seeking the Libertarian Party nomination. Likewise, former professional wrestler and Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura, who has his own complex relationship with Trump, recently voiced his interest in a potential 2020 Green Party run. It is a given that neither candidate will command major support on a national stage, but the general consensus is that they could potentially siphon enough voters to prevent Biden victories in a number of swing states.

Currently, third-party advocates are engaged in a number of legal battles aimed at gaining ballot access come November of 2020. In Illinois, the Greens and Libertarians are engaged in a court case aimed at removing all petitioning requirements for ballot access while a similar lawsuit by the coalition in Georgia aims to reduce the minimum number of signatures necessary. 

Meanwhile, the country’s two biggest parties share a vested interest in limiting third-party ballot access. As a result of political polarization, both parties are severely limited by the number of active electors up for grabs, meaning that any significant conversion of swing voters could have devastating effects on their path to the White House.

For Democrats, this issue is especially pronounced. Historical precedence shows that they have the potential to be severely damaged by a strong third-party run. In particular, Jill Stein’s 2016 Green Party campaign won more votes in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin than Trump’s margin of victory in those states. Although it’s hard to say whether Stein’s absence would have allowed for a Clinton victory, it certainly played a role in the outcome.

Third-party candidates in 2020 are far less of a risk for Republicans, but there is still a chance that their presence on the ballot could sway a number of states. After leaving the Republican Party and becoming a registered Independent, Amash voted for Trump’s impeachment, earning notoriety as a strict non-partisan ideologue. Now a Libertarian, Amash’s recondite political ideology may simply be too niche for widespread national appeal. 

Rather, Amash could steal more Libertarian-minded voters in Michigan from Trump, a vital state to the president’s re-election path. Lawsuits by the Libertarians and Greens in states like Georgia and Arizona could also put the little known, socially conservative Constitution Party on the ballot, potentially bringing the furthest politically right of Trump supporters with them. The threat seems negligible at first, but when you consider just how close the margin of victory is likely to be in these states, it is a threat worth considering.

Irrespective of the morality of voting for a third party in 2020, the entire scenario at hand reveals a number of fundamental albeit obvious flaws in the American electoral system. Most blatantly, it reveals the fragility of the two-party system. It’s a system so fragile and riddled by establishment influence that it promotes candidates uninspiring enough to allow for a few thousand disaffected voters to sway the entire election. Furthermore, the dilemma posed by the lack of ballot access for third parties is part of a broader issue concerning politics in the era of COVID-19. From issues over voter disenfranchisement to a highly politicized debate over the entire logistics of ballot-casting, the predicament has revealed just how unprepared the American electoral system is for a crisis of this magnitude. 

In this regard, the battle for third-party ballot access is merely a further indictment of a wildly myopic voting system. Instead of merely arguing over the merits of granting increased access to third-party candidates this fall, we should approach this problem with a degree of introspection, questioning just how we managed to get to this debate in the first place.

 Written by: Brandon Jetter — brjetter@ucdavis.edu 

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by individual columnists belong to the columnists alone and do not necessarily indicate the views and opinions held by The California Aggie


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