Democracy for All?

 /  Jan. 12, 2015, 7:30 a.m.


Today, Illinois inaugurates a new governor who is likely to make major changes in the way the state is run. Bruce Rauner will inherit not only the governorship, but all of the state’s problems, and will need to take quick, decisive action to fulfill his mandate from November’s election. Rauner’s 50.8 percent of the vote was a clear victory over incumbent Pat Quinn’s 46.3 percent. Some Illinois voters, however, opted for a third candidate: the Illinois Libertarian Party’s Chad Grimm. However, considering his 3.4 percent of the vote, it seems that Grimm either went largely unnoticed or was considered a “wasted vote.”

His situation was far from unique. Due to the historic salience of two main parties—today, Democrats and Republicans, who have collectively won all presidential elections since 1852—third-party candidates have traditionally had little impact on elections, struggling with fundraising and garnering small percentages of votes. This was certainly the case for Chad Grimm. Grimm’s largest campaign contribution totaled $30,000 from the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 150 Political Action Committee. By contrast, according to the Illinois State Board of Elections, Rauner and Quinn each raised millions.

Chad Grimm was certainly unconventional. The manager of a Gold’s Gym in Peoria, IL, Grimm’s previous employments have included sketch comedy, radio, and a stint as a Republican committeeman, which was followed by two unsuccessful runs for positions in the Illinois house and the Peoria City Council. His lack of campaign expertise or even simple political knowledge was clear : according to Kristen McQueary, a writer for the Chicago Tribune, Chad Grimm’s understanding of current state political issues appeared “woefully inadequate” when he was interviewed before the Tribune’s editorial board. Writer Carol Felsenthal, who was tasked with interviewing Grimm for a piece in Chicago Magazine, found it so difficult to track Grimm down that she needed a mutual connection to  provide Grimm’s personal phone number, on the condition  that Felsenthal not reveal her name. In a conversation I had with her, Felsenthal explained that her frustration extended to Grimm’s website. “You go to the website, there’s no telephone number, there’s no campaign manager [listed]. You can’t run a campaign like that.”

Clearly, Grimm had some personal problems with the campaign. Sure enough, a visit to  the “Grimm for Liberty” website reveals  a confusing eyesore that harkens back to the websites of the 1990s, and provides very little information about the candidate, and even less about his positions on political issues. Not only were these positions missing from his website, but he appeared to have little working knowledge of the problems Illinois faces as a state. According to McQueary, Grimm was “uninformed” and “unprepared,” and Felsenthal explained in our phone conversation that she absolutely agreed with McQueary’s classification of Grimm as a less-than-knowledgeable candidate.

The vast majority of Illinois voters also declined to consider Grimm a serious candidate for the governorship. But more qualified third-party candidates haven’t fared much better.  McQueary herself stated that she did in fact vote for Richard Whitney of the Green Party in Illinois’s 2006 gubernatorial race. She described Whitney as “wonkish and thoughtful,” and says he  “made a compelling case on how to move the state forward, how to better fund schools and pensions.” In 2006, Whitney received just over 10 percent of the vote--a verifiable victory for a third-party, but still lacking compared to Rob Blagojevich’s near 50 percent win. However, even Whitney, a strong third-party candidate facing an unpopular incumbent, fared only slightly better than Grimm.  Have both Whitney and Grimm fallen victim to a larger system that puts third-party politicians at a disadvantage?

McQueary also noted that Illinois’s political structure greatly disadvantages candidates outside of the two main political parties. According to McQueary, “The election code in this state, written by clouted insiders, favors incumbents and makes it extremely difficult for third parties to get on the ballot, including this slate of Libertarians. They didn't even get permission to run until late August because the rules are stacked against them. The tactics used to kick legitimate candidates off the ballot can be downright un-American.” In Illinois, major-party candidates running for state executive office—including the governorship—must include a petition with 5,000-10,000 signatures as part of their nomination papers to appear on the ballot. For independent or third-party candidates, the minimum jumps to 25,000. Even if a candidate receives the required number of signatures, the Illinois State Board of Elections can remove candidates from the ballot after a challenge has been filed. Challenges range from serious questioning of the integrity of the petition signatures to the more ludicrous, including one instance where, just this past year, candidates were disqualified for turning in paper-clipped petition sheets instead of providing the package in bound book form.

Together, these requirements stack the odds against Illinois third-party candidates in unfair ways. As Felsenthaltold me in no uncertain terms, “our ballot procedures in Illinois are onerous.” She explained that candidates from third parties are often at a fundraising disadvantage, and there’s usually no way to compete with a well-funded Republican or Democratic opponent. These wealthier candidates can hire lawyers experienced with election law to comb through opponents’ petitions, searching for one suspicious signature that they can use as leverage in a Board of Elections hearing to eliminate independent candidates. That’s exactly what happened to Scott Summers, the Green Party candidate for Illinois’s 2014 gubernatorial election. A challenge by a county official, who also happened to be a staunch supporter of Pat Quinn, elimated Summers, who was set to run against Rauner, Quinn, and Grimm, from the ballot.

One of Chad Grimm’s main goals for this election, explained Felsenthal, had been to secure a double-digit percentage of Illinois votes. Once that goal been reached, the next libertarian candidate to run would have only had to show five thousand petition signatures—the same as required of party candidates—to claim a spot on the ballot, lowering the burden of collecting signatures as well as reducing the possibility of a challenge. The last time a minor party in Illinois won at least five percent of the vote in a gubernatorial election, however, was in 2006, when Richard Whitney of the Green Party received more than 10 percent of the vote. Considering the Green Party’s fate in this most recent election,  Illinois has not been a bastion of third-party success.

The situation is similar elsewhere in the country. According to a 2013 Gallup Poll, 60 percent of Americans felt that a third major party was needed in the U.S. to bring about effective political change. But in Illinois and elsewhere, third-party candidates have met with little success. In the past 30 years, independent gubernatorial candidates have managed to garner more than 5 percent of the vote in only seventeen states. In states as diverse as Maryland, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Wyoming, no independent has reached that mark since the nineteenth century. Since the end of the Reconstruction Era, fewer than thirty third-party candidates have ever been elected governor. Considering the same phenomenon at the Congressional level, thirty U.S. Senators and 111 Congress members have been elected as third-party candidates. Since 2006, there have been 1,873 elections for Congressional seats. Only two of those have been won by third-party politicians, both running on the Independent ticket. Libertarians specifically have run in 590 of those elections and have never won.

Perhaps this points to a more organic cause of third-party candidates’ problems: a strict dichotomous mentality ingrained in American minds; the idea that political ideology is divided neatly into two mutually exclusive groups, without room for a third, or fourth, collection of ideas. The two-party system has been entrenched in American politics since the 1790s, when the Federalists and Anti-Federalists waged heated debates over the future of the country. In contrast with the multi-party or coalition system of many  European countries, compromise between parties is not generally a goal of winner-take-all U.S. elections. If Americans are predisposed to think in terms of two mutually exclusive groups, perhaps they are also intrinsically inclined to consider third-party candidates as simple distractions from the main parties, with nothing new to add—in other words, the notorious “wasted vote.”

One noteworthy exception can be found in Vermont.  Bernie Sanders, one of Vermont’s U.S. Senators and a self-categorized independent, has been a member of Congress since 1991 and is currently the longest-serving independent in the history of the U.S. Congress. In Vermont, seven political parties are recognized, five of which are minor parties. For state office, signature requirements for independent candidates are the same as those for major party candidates: 100 signatures. The results are clear: Vermont’s state legislature, comprised of 180 members, includes eleven independent or third-party members, a major victory for minor parties.

Illinois must look to Vermont and other states who have seen successes in electing third-party candidates as models for improving our ballot access procedures. In the United States as a whole, and Illinois in particular, it is clear that the two-party system is an ingrained mentality that is unlikely to undergo radical changes any time soon. However, large structural changes are not the only way to increase the inclusion of third parties, as states like Vermont have shown. Illinois, with its history of entrenched machine politics, would largely benefit from a greater diversity of parties and opinions in the political sphere, especially since third-party or independent candidates are often seen as the “underdogs” of the political system--the average Joes who manage Gold’s Gyms and connect with voters on a level that career politicians seem unable to match. Perhaps the greatest--and most feasible--change of all could come from simply increasing access by lessening signature requirements, legal barriers, and other onerous obstacles that dissuade the Richard Whitneys of the political world. Candidates outside of the influences of the system may be able to provide a fresh take and new ideas, both of which the state of Illinois, desperately needs.

Making elections more accessible for candidates in Illinois might not immediately win over the will of the people, but if the two conventional parties continue to stall legislation in Washington, underdog third-partiers may just have a fighting chance. At any rate, the political system is disadvantageous to third-party politicians in a number of ways and has many flaws. In the words of Carol Felsenthal,  “It’s a barrier that’s just about impossible to climb. It’s undemocratic—at its core, it’s undemocratic.” While Felsenthal was referring to the Illinois gubernatorial ballot requirements, the sentiment can be extended to any political system in the U.S. The system will always be flawed—but attempting to fix what we can is the first step in furthering America’s commitment to democracy.

Alyssa Cox


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