North Carolinians are generally unhappy with state and national politics. Surveys consistently indicate a majority of the state’s citizens are dissatisfied with Congress, the presidency, and the N.C. General Assembly. Not surprisingly, much of the blame is pointed at the two major parties.
A recent Meredith College Poll found less than one-quarter of all North Carolinians believe the two parties do a good job representing the people. A plurality of those responding stated neither party or its respective leaders were ethical and honest, nor did they believe Democrats or Republicans were effectively managing government. More than 56 percent believe a viable third party is necessary to improve politics and government.
Given the dissatisfaction with the major parties and rapid growth in unaffiliated voters in the state—80 percent of voters in the last two years have registered this way—it would appear that the 2018 midterm and 2020 presidential elections would be prime opportunities for third-party candidates to get elected to federal and state offices. Unfortunately, despite citizen dissatisfaction with the two major parties, we are less likely now than at any other time in our nation’s history to see third-party candidates elected. There are three reasons why.
1. The voters themselves. Despite historical dissatisfaction with political institutions, including political parties, voters are conditioned to the two-party system. The rise of unaffiliated voters is misleading as they are not independent or swing voters. Despite their ballooning numbers, unaffiliated voters are essentially partisan Democrats or Republicans. National Election Studies data analysis suggests almost 90 percent of those who call themselves independent or register unaffiliated consistently vote with one of the two major parties.
Though a significant number of Democratic and Republican voters in North Carolina think their own party is too extreme, poor government administrators, or not representing the views of its constituents, they are not inclined to vote for a third party. Democratic and Republican voters alike, including those unaffiliated voters with partisan leanings, suffer from negative partisanship: they prefer voting against the opposing party over voting for their own party.
2. The electoral system. Even if voters were more inclined to support third-party candidates and platforms, the electoral processes we use in North Carolina and nationally hinder candidates who aren’t nominated as Democrats or Republicans. Until 2017, North Carolina had one of the most restrictive ballot access laws in the country, making it almost impossible for third parties to get on the ballot. But thanks to the Electoral Freedom Act of 2017, which lowered the threshold for signatures third parties need to gain access, a handful of Constitutional Party and unaffiliated candidates will join more than 30 Libertarian candidates in this year’s races for the General Assembly.
Still, it is virtually impossible for them to win, because of our “winner-take-all” voting system. There are alternatives that could make elections easier for third-party candidates, but it’s unlikely these changes will be made in North Carolina or at the federal level. One such avenue—unlikely because it would require amending North Carolina’s constitution—is to substitute proportional voting for the current “winner-take-all” system. A few cities in the United States use this simple system. If a party wins 30 percent of the statewide vote, it wins 30 percent of the legislative seats.
3. The Democratic and Republican parties control the resources. Minnesota’s Jesse Ventura and Maine’s Angus King won prominent races—governor and U.S. senator, respectively—as third-party or independent candidates, but both are exceptions. Both raised money and had large media presence, two resources critical for winning elections. In first quarter fund-raising reports, third-party candidates for the General Assembly raised less than 1 percent of funds and reported no contributions from outside groups.
Respondents to the Meredith Poll were deeply concerned about the political partisanship in the country, but fewer than 1-in-8 voters felt things would improve. The absence of a viable third party for people dissatisfied with the extremism or lack of competence of their own party’s elected officials means that pessimism about the government’s ability to function effectively will likely continue unabated.