Do Third Parties Help or Harm Democracy?

How do third parties impact the outcome of presidential elections? Experts debate the merits and risks of third party candidates.
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Do Third Parties Have a Place in the 2024 Presidential Election?

By Elise Labott, Editor-in-Chief of Zivvy News and Adjunct Professor, American University, Eric Loepp, Associate Professor of Political Science and Director of the Learning Technology Center, University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, and Chase Oliver, Presidential Candidate, Libertarian Party

A Third-Party Candidate Can Revitalize Democracy

By Elise Labott – Editor-in-Chief of Zivvy News and Adjunct Professor, American University

Today’s hyper-partisanship and polarization hinder the two major political parties from nominating presidential candidates who can resonate with a wide spectrum of voters. This problem has deep-seated roots, entwined with the business of politics, which benefits from normalizing the extreme.

As a result, many voters have recently found themselves compelled to choose the “lesser of two evils” or resort to protest votes. Recent polling data from NewsNation underscores this frustration, with about 49 percent of American voters willing to consider a third-party alternative if both Trump and Biden are renominated. 

The Power of a Unity Ticket

No Labels, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, is exploring the possibility of fielding a 2024 ticket featuring a Republican and Democrat as running mates if a substantial portion of the country is dissatisfied with both major party nominees. (Read: if Trump is the Republican candidate.) They believe a “unity ticket,” which represents the moderate majority of Americans, recognizes common ground between Republicans and Democrats. 

While such a ticket’s presidential victory appears unlikely, its mere presence on the ballot may compel Democrats and Republicans to transcend partisan divisions and address the nation’s most pressing challenges. Unlike the dominant two parties, which often engage in mudslinging and character attacks, a unity ticket free from party leadership and donor interests would enable the candidates to prioritize American citizens’ concerns. The major parties would then need to refine policy proposals and engage in more substantive campaign debates. This alone could inspire positive change in the existing political landscape—regardless of the unity ticket’s success. 

The Myth of a “Wasted” Vote 

Some analysts predict a third-party candidate could draw more support from Biden’s voters than Trump’s, causing concern among Democrats. A group called Citizens to Save Our Republic, including former Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.), is challenging No Labels over its potential to threaten democracy by enabling Trump’s return to power. 

Yet this argument overlooks a deeper, longer-term problem at hand: the stranglehold of the two-party system and the corrosive influence of big money in American politics. Consistently voting for the “lesser of two evils” perpetuates a system that limits voters’ personal choices and stifles innovative leadership. A vote for a third-party candidate is not just about one election; it’s about challenging the barriers that uphold the two-party duopoly. 

Moreover, the fear of a third-party candidate tipping the scales in favor of either party is based on a flawed assumption—that all potential third-party voters would otherwise vote for a major party candidate. Many may abstain from voting for the presidential candidate or skip the election altogether. Allowing support for third-party candidates could invigorate democracy by incentivizing voter turnout. 

A third-party candidate doesn’t have to win the presidency to have a meaningful impact. Their mere presence in the race can reshape the conversation, push major parties to evolve, and inspire a new generation of elected leaders who understand democracy centers on “We the People” rather than “We the Parties.” In this context, concerns about which party might be “hurt” by third-party candidates earning votes are less important than the broader goal of revitalizing democracy and addressing citizens’ needs.

Financial and Corruption Considerations 

No Labels must address its own issues regarding financial transparency to be viable. Currently, it refuses to disclose funding for its ticket. But reports suggest past and present chief executives of major companies have contributed millions of dollars, with many favoring conservative candidates, although some have played both sides of the aisle, financing Republican and Democratic politicians. This lack of transparency raises legitimate concerns about its influence on the electoral process and the potential for favoring specific candidates. 

Nonetheless, a third-party ticket would remind politicians they serve the people, not the other way around. It’s time to reject the false narrative that voting for a third-party candidate is a wasted vote and instead recognize it as a powerful statement in favor of an issue-focused, united America.

How do third parties impact the outcome of presidential elections? Experts debate the merits and risks of third party candidates. Third Parties Divide and Disturb Democracy Response

By Eric Loepp – Associate Professor of Political Science and Director of the Learning Technology Center, University of Wisconsin-Whitewater

Why not have more political parties in the United States? For many Americans, having more options sounds like a good thing, be it restaurants, television channels, or political parties. More choices mean it is easier to locate one’s personal ideal to meet nutritional, entertainment, or electoral needs. Moreover, more Americans than ever are identifying as independents rather than partisans, and a large majority of Americans see a need for a third-party option. So what is the case against third parties?

Third Parties Increase The Burden On Citizens

Third parties increase voters’ cognitive workloads and therefore may promote voter confusion. In some states, there are numerous minor parties on the ticket next to the more familiar Democratic and Republican labels. In New York, for instance, the 2020 presidential election ballot featured five minor parties: Conservative, Working Families, Green, Libertarian, and Independence. These are five additional organizations voters must educate themselves on to make an informed decision. (“What exactly does the Working Families Party stand for? Is the Independence Party ideologically moderate?”) Moreover, some have names associated closely with the flagship parties at the top of the ballot. (“What’s the difference between the Republican Party and the Conservative Party?”) It can be confusing. 

Critics of the two-party system understandably claim its lack of candidate choices is detrimental to democracy. Yet this system permits numerous candidates of all political stripes to run in primary elections for the right to represent their party in the general election. Republican voters in Alabama and Utah can express support for different Republican candidates if they choose. Democratic voters in Ohio and Washington can do the same. A two-party system still promotes viewpoint diversity; it just occurs within parties rather than strictly between them. This is the best of both worlds: Voters have multiple candidates to choose from in primaries but only have two major, viable parties to consider in the fall.

Finally, the issue of voter workload and choice is not merely a matter of sorting out which party they like best. It is also a matter of determining which they like least. More parties can make it harder for voters to hold elected officials accountable. Imagine a multi-party government comprising several different parties, none of which hold more than, say, 30 percent of legislative seats. In this scenario, if things go horribly wrong, how can voters punish ineffectual politicians? How do they know which party is most responsible? A hallmark of an effective democracy is that voters can replace incompetent representatives. When there are only two major parties, it is much easier to achieve this. 

Wasting Votes and Helping The Opposition

For better or worse, the political system is currently set up in a way that makes it nearly impossible for third parties to win elected office, particularly for higher-level positions like governor or president. For the time being, voters casting ballots for minor-party candidates are wasting their votes on nominees who have no chance of winning instead of weighing in on the race between viable candidates.

Just because third parties cannot win does not mean they cannot impact election outcomes. This may initially sound like a good reason to have them around, but the way minor parties matter can actually harm the major political party they are most aligned with in terms of ideology and policy views. 

Imagine, for instance, a minor party located on the ideological fringe of the political left—a party more liberal than the Democratic Party. Supporters of this minor party may not like the Democratic Party very much (that’s why they formed their own!), but surely these individuals would prefer the Democratic candidates to the Republican candidates policy-wise. But if the left-wing minor party and the Democratic Party both field a candidate in an election, liberal voters will split their votes between them. This benefits the Republican Party: The Republican candidate will enjoy support from nearly all right-of-center voters, while left-of-center voters are now split across two parties. 

Even in a region that is not majority Republican, such a scenario is plausible. Imagine a result along these lines: 45 percent for a Republican candidate, 35 percent for a Democratic candidate, and 20 percent for the left-wing minor party. Since candidates in American elections usually only need a plurality of votes to win the office rather than a majority, minor parties have the potential to play “spoiler.” Even if this sounds appealing in a world where many voters are frustrated with both major parties, the key is that minor parties often spoil the election for whichever major party their voters would most prefer. In the example above, most voters (55 percent) would want a left-of-center candidate, but the winner was right-of-center. 

This issue is not merely theoretical. Many Democrats are concerned about progressive candidate Cornell West launching a bid to become the Green Party’s 2024 presidential candidate. This is not because they think he would defeat the Democratic Party’s nominee, Joe Biden, but because West might attract some voters to the Green Party that may otherwise go to Biden. And if Donald Trump fails to win the Republican Party nomination and instead runs as a third-party candidate in 2024, he could spoil the Republican nominee’s chances by splitting right-of-center voters.

The Solution To Division Is Not More Division

Many voters are rightly concerned about the state of political polarization in the United States. Ironically, many cite conflict between Republicans and Democrats as a justification for establishing additional parties for voters to choose from. Yet, having more parties increases the propensity for confusion among voters and cannibalization within like-minded political groups. This may be more likely to contribute to, rather than resolve, political division in America. 

Two-party systems are far from perfect. They have their own challenges and limitations. However, flawed as they are, the parties in a two-party system necessarily comprise broad coalitions of interests across various regions, cultures, and sectors in America. Their nominees must appeal to a large swath of the electorate, including so-called swing voters in the political center, in order to form a winning coalition. Thus, successful candidates in American elections tend to secure the support of a majority of participating voters, or at least close to it. Adding third parties to the electoral mix means candidates could win office with far fewer than a majority of the votes, a most undemocratic outcome.

How do third parties impact the outcome of presidential elections? Experts debate the merits and risks of third party candidates.

Third Parties Can Fix Our Broken System 

By Chase Oliver – Party

I see a number of areas where the Libertarian Party (LP) has an advantage in the 2024 elections compared to other third parties.

First, the Libertarian Party’s presidential nominee is likely to be on the ballot in all 50 states. This is unlikely for the Green or Forward parties. We have experience with successful signature drives and court battles to get on the ballot in states with difficult eligibility requirements. The organization with the most chances to make the ballot is also the one likely to have the largest impact at the polls. Vote totals in the 2016 and 2020 election cycles where the LP had 50-state access demonstrate this. So, this ballot-access advantage gives us an electoral edge over our friends in the Green Party.

Second, unlike the Green Party, with left-skewed policies, or the Forward Party, with an ambiguous platform, the Libertarian Party will have the advantage of having a platform that can appeal to voters on the left, right, and center. From immigration to the legalization of cannabis to LGBTQ+ rights, the Libertarian Party has consistently either been ahead of the mainstream or placed where politicians are lagging behind the opinions of the majority of voters. This gives us consistency in our principles and shows that the overall perception of these issues has evolved to the LP position, not the other way around. I don’t believe Forward has existed long enough to create such a legacy of staying true to principles against the changing winds of political opinion, nor would I support the argument that the Green Party’s policy is one that sits anywhere near the mainstream. Republicans and Democrats have abandoned this great middle by increasing polarization and hyper-partisanship with the two-party system.

Breaking the Party Duopoly

Of note, the Libertarian Party will have a candidate who will likely support the centrist Forward party’s top issue: Ranked Choice Voting. We in the Libertarian Party welcome their support of our nominee in 2024, because without a definite candidate of its own, Forward’s influence in the race is somewhat negated. The best way for Forward to have an impact in the 2024 presidential election would be to back the Libertarian nominee to send a unifying message. The top Libertarian candidates (myself included, of course) are supporting ranked choice voting this election cycle, so it would be a natural partnership in 2024 for Forward to back the Libertarian nominee rather than running itself. Together, we can have a much greater impact against the Democrat and Republican parties.

The Libertarian Party has existed for more than 50 years. In that time, it has had periods of growth and decline. In the 2024 landscape, I see great potential for the growth of our brand, our movement, and our influence in national politics. I intend to take every advantage of the atmosphere of voter dissatisfaction with the two-party system and honestly hope to see the Green and Forward parties do the same in their own ways. Together we can overcome a broken duopoly.

I want to thank Divided We Fall, as well as my fellow debate series participants. Together, we can fight for what the majority of everyday Americans want: to be heard and respected.

If you enjoyed this article, please make sure to like, comment, and share below. You can also read more from our Political Pen Pals debates here

Elise Labott
Contributing Editor, Politico Magazine | Website

Elise Labott is a Contributing Editor at Politico Magazine and Adjunct Professor at American University. Previously, she was a columnist at Foreign Policy magazine and leading journalist covering U.S. foreign policy and international issues and CNN’s Global Affairs Correspondent. Elise is the founder of Zivvy, a digital media platform that aims to engage, inform and inspire youth to solve today’s most pressing global challenges, and an adjunct professor at American University's School of International Service. She is also a member of the Council on Foriegn Relations.

Eric Loepp copy min e1652050984569
Eric Loepp
Associate Professor of Political Science and Director of the Learning Technology Center, University of Wisconsin-Whitewater | Website

Eric Loepp is an associate professor of political science and director of the Learning Technology Center at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. He teaches courses in American government, political behavior, and research methods. His research has been published in such journals as Electoral Studies; the Journal of Elections, Public Opinion, and Parties; Research & Politics; Election Law Journal; American Politics Research; PS: Political Science & Politics; and Social Science Quarterly.


Chase Oliver
Presidential Candidate, Libertarian Party

Chase Oliver's campaign for Georgia's hotly-contested U.S. Senate seat attracted national
attention, leading Rolling Stone to dub him the "most influential Libertarian in America." He is a passionate and energetic champion for the rights of all individuals against the growing power of the state. This 38-year-old is bringing the energy the duopoly will have a hard time competing with.


Locuta September 29, 2023 at 6:56 pm

The current duopoly is an artifact of the current winner-take-all voting system. Without multiple-choice voting (ranked-choice or STAR) in place in every state, third parties will continue to be non-viable.
It is troubling that none of these articles even mentioned these crucial issues.

Joe Schuman October 1, 2023 at 10:06 am

@Locuta Check out our article on RCV and STAR voting here:

Steve Richardson September 29, 2023 at 11:53 am

It’s a moot point, since they don’t stand a chance in the vast majority of our elections, thanks to the ruling duopoly. The question we should be asking is whether those parties are helping or harming democracy. Although I think we all know what the answer is, I can recommend Tyranny of the Minority by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Zeblatt as a current, authoritative source on this subject. They make a number of recommendations, but the top two mentioned in their Washington Post Live interview Wednesday were to make it as easy as possible for all of us to vote and to eliminate the Senate filibuster.

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