This article is Part 2 of a three part series. Part 1 is available here.
So say you run a third party campaign so successful that its vote causes the nearest major party to lose to the other major party. Now, candidates in both major parties see an organized group of very angry voters who need to be won back. This trend has been seen time and again when third party movements grow large enough to force one or both major parties to absorb them by running future campaigns that align more with the views of the voters most likely to leave if their grievances are not addressed.
For American history, I’m going back to the Populist Party for that one. Millions of Populist voters elected state and local officers across the country, before seeing William Jennings Bryan swoop in to steal the Democratic Party and launch the progressive movement to the national spotlight in 1896.
For modern politics, I can’t help but think of David Cameron’s Conservative Party of the United Kingdom. Cameron’s moderate stance on Europe caused the Conservatives to bleed thousands of votes to the UK Independence Party until, in the election of 2015, he promised to give Britain a vote on staying in or leaving the European Union.
In the short run, it worked. UKIP’s support dried up, and the Conservatives swept the national elections. Never mind the fact that Brexit didn’t go the way he envisioned, but the point remains.
There’s your spoiler effect in action, folks. If you want politicians to respect you, they have to need you. The more desperately, the better.
That brings us back to the question people are really interested in. What effect does it have NOW, on THIS election? Is it possible for a third party to win the presidency? And what about that thing I heard about an Electoral College tie?
Answering that requires a recap of American Government 101.
The President and Vice President are elected indirectly through a system called the Electoral College. Each state is entitled to a number of electors based more or less on its population. 535 electors (100 for the senators, 435 for the reps, and 3 for Washington, D.C. because consolation prize) means it takes 270 for a majority.
Every presidential and vice presidential election since 1800 (which was before we adopted the current Electoral College system, by the way) has resulted in the people choosing electors who in turn give a majority of electoral votes to candidates for President and Vice President. This system hasn’t failed to be boring one time thus far in over two centuries.
That said, what happens if it DOES fail to be boring this time?
There is a lot of confusion about the Constitution here, so I’m going to be very specific. The Constitution does not give the Presidency or the Vice Presidency to the candidates who simply receive more electoral votes than the other guy.
It gives those offices to candidates who win a MAJORITY of the electoral votes.
This means, of course, that a third party could pretty easily throw a wrench in the gears if it just managed to get enough electoral votes to prevent either side from getting a majority. Heck, it doesn’t even need to be a third party.
Electors are living, breathing humans nominated by their parties and elected by the people to cast votes for President and Vice President. If enough of them decided to vote for someone other than their party’s nominee, it’s fair game according to the vagueness that is the Constitution and what little historical precedent there is on this issue.
How this may impact next month’s election remains to be seen…
Continued in Part 3, available here.