Zhu: The Alternate Choice

Third-party candidates should be allowed to debate.

by Michael Zhu | 10/26/16 12:15am

Recently, when my friends and I mention who we plan to vote for in the current deplorable state of American politics, we consistently use the same rationale: although we don’t like one candidate, we prefer him or her to the other one. This reasoning can sometimes make sense. It’s not always about choosing a candidate who matches every belief you hold or even most of your beliefs.

But this justification can be dangerous, especially in such an important election. With a political climate marked by tense partisan conflict, we need a president that we truly believe in. Given two less-than-stellar main candidates, we need to have more access to third-party candidates.

The 2016 presidential debates should have included Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson and Green Party candidate Jill Stein. Had they been in the debates, more voters would have been aware of the alternatives to Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, and the debates would have been more informative than the prime-time entertainment they ended up as. By bringing new ideas and different ways of problem-solving, the third-party candidates could help improve the country.

Currently, candidates must reach certain qualifications to make it to the debate stage. Beyond just being legitimate presidential candidates, they must also meet ballot access requirements — enough to win the Electoral College — and have the support of at least 15 percent of the national electorate.

This system is ridiculous. A media poll shouldn’t determine who can broadcast their message and who cannot. By basing qualification on a poll, the process heavily favors popular candidates and promotes the idea that a less popular candidate does not deserve to be heard. With smaller candidates already lacking the resources main-party candidates have to aggressively advertise, fundraise and otherwise promote themselves on social media, this requirement harms them even more. Candidates whose supporter bases lie largely outside of media polls are essentially forced out.

Most forms of polling have inherent issues as well, with different types of polls favoring different types of voters. Fewer and fewer Americans use landline telephones, and an even smaller fraction are willing to be polled; those who are usually lean conservative. On the other hand, responders to online polls tend to be younger and more left-leaning. Though media companies use a mix of the two in an attempt to ameliorate this issue, these polls are still not accurate.

Many argue that there aren’t enough independent voters to change anything in the polls, but more people are registered as independent voters than as Republicans or Democrats. A recent Gallup poll shows that 42 percent of voters identify as independent, a dramatic increase from the past decades. On the other hand, identified Republicans and Democrats are at historic lows, at 26 percent and 29 percent, respectively. In spite of the dominance of independent voters, they are not given any clear options except the two mainstays.

Voters want third-party candidates to be given much more exposure. In a recent survey by Suffolk University and USA Today, 76 percent of voters believed that candidates Johnson and Stein should have been on the debate stages. In spite of this, Clinton and Trump were the only two candidates allowed to speak. Why do we make it seem as if there are only two systems of political thought when voters clearly want more?

The two-party system has been a large proponent of excluding third-parties from debates. The Commission of Presidential Debates, which administers the restrictive qualifications currently needed to be in the presidential debates, was created by representatives of the Democratic and Republican parties. While it seems naïve to accuse the Commission of establishing such a high threshold of entry just to limit debates to the two main parties, only once, in 1992 when Ross Perot joined Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush on the stage, has a third-party candidate made it to a presidential debate.

Our current system is not necessarily a bad one. The two-party system, in some form or the other, has roots dating back to our country’s founding. But such a system was not written in the Constitution or inscribed into law. It may be the most common system, but it’s not the only one available. We should stop pretending that there are only two presidential candidates and instead listen to what the other parties have to offer. We do not have to agree with or support third parties — but as hopefully intelligent voters, we should be allowed to make our own decisions after hearing every candidate’s viewpoints.