How Libertarians and the Green Party Can Compete for the White House

Larry King is hosting the debate for third-party candidates. Here are the reforms that could make those parties worthy of Candy Crowley.

It’s fitting, somehow, that Larry King (off all people) will host next week’s presidential debate of third-party candidates. He’s loud, irrelevant, but kind of entertaining—and hey, so is the Green Party! Together, they’ll make great fodder for a Saturday Night Live skit, but the actual impact on the presidential race will be negligible. The days that a third party could make a substantial difference in an election probably ended in 2000, when millions of American liberals voted for Ralph Nader, and spent the next eight years deeply hating the presidency of George W. Bush. Who wants to take that chance again?

Still, the two-party system feels like a straightjacket, doesn’t it? If you’re trying to decide whether to vote for the presidential candidate who uses drones to assassinate American citizens or the candidate who would do that and start a war with Iran, the choice between a Democrat or a Republican can often feel like the choice between “bad” and “worse.”  The truth is that political opinion in the United States really does come in more than two flavors, and it would be really nice if we had a system that somehow reflected the diversity.

So maybe it’s time to blow the system up.

Not literally, let me be clear about that. But the only reason we have the Constitutional system we do—a president, two houses of Congress, a court system—is because we’ve decided to keep it in place, not because it’s written in stone somewhere. We could change it! There are two reforms we could make that would give third parties more of a presence in American politics, and perhaps break through the gridlock that seems to sustain the two major parties:

WE COULD ADOPT THE PARLIAMENTARY SYSTEM: It’s kind of weird, don’t you think, that America was the first modern democracy—and yet very few of the democracies that followed adopted our form of government? Just about everybody else put a parliamentary system in place.

Third parties tend to thrive in parliamentary systems—they have real power, in fact because if the leading party doesn’t win enough seats in Parliament to claim a majority, it has to ally itself with other parties, to get a majority of seats and elect a prime minister to govern. In Great Britain, for example, the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats joined forces to keep the center-left Labor Party out of power. Imagine if America’s Democrats require the help of (say) the Libertarian Party to govern the United States?

Which brings us to one of the big objections to a parliamentary system: It’s pretty much a majority-rules affair—there aren’t the checks and balances you see under America’s Constitution. On the other hand, there are clear lines of accountability, too: Opposition parties have little power to block or change legislation, so they can’t make governance more difficult.

WE COULD ADOPT WEIGHTED VOTING: This is less radical than re-making the government, but it could still have dramatic effects. Right now, when you vote for president, you vote for one person. Under “weighted voting,” you’d list your presidential candidates in order of preference.

Why would this make a difference? Because under a weighted voting system, a candidate still needs a majority of votes to win the presidency. If a candidate didn’t win a majority of votes based on the first preferences on all ballots cast, authorities would then look at the second and third preferences to see which candidate has more overall support for that majority.

Back in 2000, then, Nader voters could have listed him as their top preference—and Al Gore as their second choice. That would’ve been enough to give Gore Florida’s electoral votes that year, probably changing modern history significantly, while still allowing third-party supporters to have their say at the ballot box.

Now, the two major parties in America are pretty powerful. It’s unlikely they’ll support reforms that would dilute their power and create more competition. And the same forces that keep Libertarian Gary Johnson or the Green Party’s Jill Stein from amassing power also keep David Duke and the Ku Klux Klan from attracting support—so there’s that to think about.

Right now, though, those parties think that they don’t attract votes because, in part, they’re shut out of the major presidential debates. That’s probably not entirely true. Absent reforms, there’s no reason they belong on the main stage: They have almost no ability to impact the race. The sideshow with Larry King will have to do.