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Know the West

Third-party votes count for plenty


Political conversations this fall often include the observation that "We need a third party."

In the Mountain West, the most reliably Republican part of America, the reply is often "Third party? Wouldn't it make more sense to start by having a second party?"

Soon comes a practical admonition that unless you cast a ballot for a major-party candidate, "You're throwing your vote away."

To be sure, there aren't many Greens or Libertarians holding public office. But Minnesota citizens weren't throwing away their votes in 1998 when they made a governor out of Jesse Ventura, then of the Reform Party, and for the past decade, Vermont ballots have counted for Rep. Bernie Sanders, who is neither a Republican nor Democrat.

In a republic with thousands of elected officials, though, these off-brand politicians could be dismissed as mere aberrations whose occasional triumphs don't address the real question: "Are you throwing away your ballot when you vote for a third-party candidate who can't win?"

Third parties usually rise when there are important issues that the two major parties have avoided. We can start with the Republicans, the most successful such effort.

In 1854, when the GOP was founded in the Midwest, America was basically divided between the Whigs, who favored a strong central government that would build canals and railroads to develop a nation devoted to trade and manufacture, and the Democrats, who supported an agrarian commonwealth with weak government at all levels.

Neither party wanted to address the divisive issue of slavery and its expansion into territory taken from Mexico in 1848. They avoided the topic, since taking either side would alienate potential supporters in North or South.

Thus it fell to a new party, the Republicans, to oppose expanding slavery to the territories. And that put the issue squarely on the national agenda.

Consider the 1890s. Farmers saw their potential profits swallowed by railroads and commodity speculators. Miners were getting $2.50 for a 12-hour day of back-breaking labor. Only the financiers seemed to be enjoying the benefits of American expansion, and yet the Republican and Democratic platforms addressed only trifling matters like the tariff.

Enter the Populists, a third party of farmers and workers in the South and West who wanted things like federal support of farm prices and farm credit, regulation of railroads and other monopolies, direct election of U.S. senators and a graduated income tax.

Their presidential candidate, Gen. James B. Weaver, carried Colorado, Idaho, Iowa and Nevada in 1892. Populists elected a governor in Colorado, sent representatives to Washington, and got working majorities in some statehouses.

Yet by 1910, the Populist Party existed in name only. Were those votes and struggles wasted? Or did you notice that most of the Populist platform eventually became law because the two major parties had been forced to address those issues, from Republican Theodore Roosevelt's Square Deal through Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal?

In more recent times, there was Alabama Gov. George Wallace's American Independent Party in 1968. He got only 46 electoral votes, all from the Old Confederacy, and he was known mostly for opposing racial integration.

But the Wallace phenomenon made the two major parties aware of the power of the Red, White & Blue bloc (red neck, white trash, blue collar), and that faction (pretty much my own socio-economic group) has held a seat at the national table ever since.

For proof, note that it has been 32 years since Wallace was a player, and then observe how the two major candidates this year, both sons of privilege with Ivy League educations, emphasize their down-home peckerwood heritage - Al Gore behind the plow in Tennessee, George Bush in the oil patches of west Texas. And look at how they address their campaigns to "decent, hard-working American families" while avoiding any public effort to appeal to groups that Wallace characterized as "pointy-headed professors."

True, you've got a better chance of winning the lottery than of seeing Ralph Nader, Harry Browne or Pat Buchanan getting sworn in next January.

But you might think it's important for American citizens, rather than a three-judge panel in Switzerland, to make the rules for commerce in this country. Or it may trouble you that America leads the world in prison population while conducting an expensive and unwinnable War on Drugs that has shredded the Bill of Rights. Or your main concern may be one of the scores of other important issues that the major parties pretty much ignore, from public-lands management to improving the public health.

In which case, history shows that your vote for a candidate who shares your views isn't "wasted." Instead, it's like the proverbial two-by-four applied to a balky mule - it's the only way to get their attention when they persist in ignoring things that matter.

Ed Quillen is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (www.hcn.org). He lives in Salida, Colorado, where he helps publish Colorado Central magazine.

Copyright © 2000 HCN and Ed Quillen