Ballot Access Laws and the Two-Party System

Partisanship and the strength of the two major political parties have waxed and waned in the United States over the last several decades.  After Ross Perot’s strong performance in the 1992 Presidential Elections, “a number of political observers-Theodore Lowi (1994) and Gordon Black and Benjamin Black (1994) among them-began to argue for the creation of a third major party, citing strong public support that they claim exists for a viable, mainstream alternative” (Collet 1996, 431-432).  Almost two and a half decades later, public support for a viable third party remains high.  According to a Gallup poll in September of 2017, only 37% of respondents believe that Republicans and Democrats do an adequate job while 61% claim that these parties do a poor job and a third party is needed.  This mark of 61% in favor of a new party is the highest point in their reported data from 2003-2017. (Gallup 2017).

One does have to wonder that if the majority of the American public favors the creation of a new political party then was hasn’t a viable alternative emerged?  In answering this question, it seems likely that many political scientists would point to Maurice Duverger and his famous political law.  As William Riker states, “Duverger’s law proposes that ‘the simple majority single-ballot system favors the two-party system.’  Duverger described this sentence by saying: ‘Of all the hypotheses…in this book, this approaches most nearly perhaps to a true sociological law’” (Riker 1982, 754).  I would wager that is unlikely the average American knows the name of Duverger or his law, nevertheless, throughout my exploration of politics I’ve heard it time and time again that voters don’t end up casting their ballots for their sincere choice due to worries of wasting a vote or throwing a vote away due to the idea that the United States is a two-party system.  But, is it possible that the reason why we don’t see an abundance of supposedly badly desired third-party options listed on the ballot is that there are other institutional factors at play, specifically in the area of ballot access laws?

In his famous work, An Economic Theory of Democracy, Anthony Downs explores the topic of party systems and ideologies in chapter 8.  He argues that in a population where political opinions are normally distributed in a bell curve, two major political parties will emerge on each end of the ideological spectrum and, over time, they will become more and more alike as they converge toward the median voter (Downs 1957, 114-119).  In the latter half of the chapter, Downs considers the topic of new political parties.  In particular, he explores the creation of the Labour Party in Britain who, thanks to the expanded franchise of the working class, was able to position itself to the left of the Liberal Party to become the dominant party to rival the Conservatives.  “New parties are most likely to appear and survive when there is an opportunity for them to cut off a large part of the support of an older party by sprouting up between it and its former voters” (Downs 1957, 128).  If, as Downs claims, parties shift over time, and new parties either spring up to supplant the old ones or in order to shift a political party in a certain ideological direction, why have we not observed this trend in the United States?

Randall Holcombe suggests an answer.  “In the Downsian model of political competition there are no barriers to entry, and suppliers of legislation are chosen from those who are competing to become suppliers based on how closely the output they propose to supply matches the desires of demanders” (Holcombe 1991, 233-234).  So why then have these ballot access laws emerged?  Holcombe compares incumbent legislators to a cartel and makes the claim that given that they control entry into the political marketplace, they can set thresholds, such as ballot access laws, to secure their continued monopoly on political power and keep competition at a minimum.  “The coalition of incumbents uses barriers to entry to place challengers at a competitive disadvantage, which frees incumbents from having to strictly follow the desires of the voters” (Holcombe 1991, 231).

Thomas Stratmann explored the topic of ballot access restrictions about 15 years ago by examining both signature requirements and filing fees.  He found “that monetary ballot access restrictions are an impediment to both major- and minor-party candidate entries into electoral contests…a $1000 increase in the filing fee leads to a 4% decrease in major-party candidates and a 43%…decrease in minor-party candidates” (Stratmann 2005, 69).  He also determined that “signature requirements have no statistically significant effect on a minor-party candidate’s decision to enter the race” (Stratmann 2005, 69).  I found this second statement particularly curious and one that demanded further investigation.

Unlike many other nations, the United States does not have uniform ballot access laws.  “US electoral administration is decentralized and the exact voting experience (such as ballot format and voting technology) can vary from state to state (and even within states)” (Taylor 2018, 721).  He goes on to add, “a cursory look at the US party and electoral systems would suggest that they represent clear-cut proof of Duverger’s law, the notion that single-seat plurality elections tend to create two-party systems” (Taylor 725).  From 1946 to 2014, he reports that in the United States the effective number of political parties is 2.07 while the effective number of parliamentary parties is even lower, 1.94. (Taylor 2018, 725).  He briefly touches on ballot access laws, “state election laws essentially guarantee a ballot slot for major party nominees in the United States, but not for smaller third parties (most especially not new ones)” (Taylor 2018, 727), but his central theory is that the rigid American two-party system results from a presidential system and the phenomenon of primary elections.

So, do ballot access laws make an observable difference in elections?  If so, how?  One particular election springs readily to mind.  During Super Tuesday on March 6th, 2012, along with a multitude of other states Virginia held its Republican presidential primary.  Although several candidates sought to have their names listed, including Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry, according to the Republican Party of Virginia “Gingrich and Perry fell short of the 10,000 signatures of registered voters required for a candidate’s name to be on the ballot…it was unclear if Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, or former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman submitted petitions to the state board” (NBC News).  Gingrich, Huntsman, Perry, and Santorum filed a lawsuit in order to be listed as candidates but were unsuccessful (Myers 2012).  As a result, Virginia voters ended up with only two choices, Mitt Romney and Ron Paul.  

After this election lawmakers sprang into action to lower ballot access laws presumably in order to provide greater competition.  Where primary challengers once needed 10,000 valid signatures with at least 400 signatures from each of Virginia’s 11 congressional districts to run for any statewide office, (§ 24.2-506) after 2012 both of these requirements were cut in half (§ 24.2-545).  In the next election which followed these reduced requirements, 13 candidates appeared on the ballot for the 2016 Virginia Republican presidential primary.  Although certainly curious, one should be wary of drawing conclusions based upon a single observation.  Once more contests have taken place, it will be interesting to note if the average number of candidates on the ballot in a primary is statistically higher after the signature requirement slashing. 

However, it is also important to note that unless they are running for a party’s nomination in a primary, neither Republican nor Democratic candidates need to collect any signatures to have their names placed on the ballot for a general election.  But, any third party or independent candidate is still required to cross this threshold (§ 24.2-506).  Along these same lines, one does have to wonder if ballot access laws are used as a tool to keep third-party and independent candidates out of competition (as Virginia State Senator Mark Obenshain (R-26) mentioned to me in late 2014).

With all of these thoughts in mind, my hypothesis is two-fold.  First, there is an inverse relationship between the hurdles of ballot access and the appearance of third-party candidates.  That is to say that greater restrictions on ballot access will result in fewer third-party candidates running for office and fewer restrictions will result in a greater number of third-party candidates.  Second, one would expect fewer uncontested elections in times when ballot access requirements are reduced.

Testing my hypothesis turned out to be a more difficult task than originally anticipated.  Unfortunately, ballot access laws are not readily available for most states and require poring through either state code or election laws.  My original thought was to have “a tale of two Virginias”.  Given that both West Virginia and Virginia have a bicameral General Assembly featuring a 100-member House of Delegates and either a 40- or 34-member State Senate, it seemed like a natural comparison at first glance.  Virginia requires third party and independent candidates to gather 125 voter signatures to appear on the ballot for House of Delegates and 250 signatures for the State Senate while West Virginia requires 1% of the number of voters in the previous election.  However, upon closer inspection, this comparison quickly became exceedingly messy.  For starters, while Virginia elects its House of Delegates in every odd-numbered year and the entire Virginia Senate in every other odd-numbered year, West Virginia elects its House of Delegates in every even-numbered year along with an alternating half of the West Virginia Senate.  Adding further complication, although the Virginia House of Delegates is elected in 100 single-member districts, presently the West Virginia House of Delegates is broken into 58 districts where most are elected through single-member plurality and others in multi-member block votes.  Given these considerable differences in election times and district magnitude, it seemed nearly impossible to draw any meaningful comparison between the General Assemblies of the two states.

Exploring the idea of changes in ballot access further, I discovered that West Virginia had modified its ballot access laws in 1999, doubling the signature requirement from 1% of the votes cast in the previous election to 2%.  However, in 2009, the West Virginia General Assembly voted to return to their earlier requirement of 1%.  (West Virginia 2017).  Even though I could not find the lines in the West Virginia Code which listed these changes, I contacted the office of the Secretary of State who confirmed the details mentioned above.  In addition, although I would have preferred to look strictly at single-member districts, as I believe it would yield more precise results, using this information I would be able to examine the total number of third-party candidates who ran in each election cycle in years where the 1% rule was employed and others where the 2% hurdle was in place to determine if either resulted in statistically significant differences.  At the same time, these results would show if times of lower ballot thresholds would yield more political competition through fewer uncontested elections.

For this data, I combed through election results from the West Virginia Secretary of State’s website.  I decided to use general election data from 1996 to 2018 for several reasons.  First, one of the major third parties in West Virginia, the Libertarian Party of West Virginia, was founded in 1994.  Although a Libertarian candidate ran for governor in the 1980 gubernatorial election, the party did not field another candidate for this office until 1996.  Similarly, the Mountain Party did not run a candidate for governor until 2000 (Historical Election Results).  Second, I discovered that as one explores the publicly available data, the farther one goes back in time, the spottier information becomes.  For example, for several elections in the mid-1990s, the website fails to list the party affiliation of some or all of the General Assembly candidates.  Therefore, I would need to exclude such elections and thus each year would not have the same number of elections, 100 for the House of Delegates and 17 for the State Senate.  Along these same lines, for uniformity purposes, I excluded the results for any special elections that took place for either of these bodies during the time frame.

Figure 1 shows both the total number of 3rd party candidates (those who are neither Republican nor Democrat) who ran for the West Virginia House of Delegates in a given year, as well as the total number of unopposed elections.  As mentioned, after the 1998 elections, the General Assembly doubled the signature requirements from 1% to 2% and, as the chart shows, one does not see the number of 3rd party candidates return or exceed the 1998 levels until 2012 after the ballot requirements were lowered once more.

Running a regression with the dichotomous variable of ballot reform (the elections of 1996-1998 and 2010-2018 as opposed to 2000-2008), we find a fairly substantial coefficient of 6.14 with a P value of .05, lending considerable support for the idea that yes, in the West Virginia House of Delegates 3rd party competition is statistically higher when ballot access laws are at a lower threshold.

By comparison, running a similar regression using the same dichotomous variable of ballot reform, we find that, on average, that during times of lower ballot access thresholds, there are about 4 fewer uncontested races per election cycle.  However, this result is not statistically significant. 

Moving on to the West Virginia State Senate we observe a similar pattern.  Right before the ballot access signature requirement was doubled, there was a high-water mark of 3 3rd party candidates that was not met or exceeded until the 2014 elections.  I find it also especially interesting the sharp decline in uncontested Senate elections after 2012, dropping to 0 for these last two cycles. 

Looking at a regression for the Senate using the same variables as the previous tables, we find that this lower threshold for ballot access predicts about 1.5 more 3rd party candidates per cycle as compared to the higher percentage.  The P value is .09, which is higher than the desired .05 or lower, but given that only 17 seats are elected each cycle and only 10 elections are in the data set, I think it still shows some important significance.

Moving on to unopposed Senate elections we find that lower ballot access laws predict 1.5 fewer uncontested contests.  However, like the House results, the high P value means that we shouldn’t think too much of this outcome.

After presenting these findings in my class, Elections and Political Parties Around the World, my professor, Dr. Herron, suggested examining the results of local elections in West Virginia as well, based upon the assumption that third parties are more likely to run candidates at the local level given that costs of running such a campaign would be lower as would be the signature requirements necessary to achieve ballot access.  The three largest cities in West Virginia, Charleston, Morgantown, and Huntington, seemed to be the most logical places to examine.  After some preliminary research, I discovered that cities in West Virginia hold their council elections in the spring of odd-numbered years.  However, with the exception of the road bond issue in 2017 and a vote on an amendment to the West Virginia Constitution in 2005, the Secretary of State’s website had no other information about odd-numbered year elections.  Calling Mac Warner’s office revealed that state law did not require localities to present their municipal election results to the secretary and so they chose not to do so. 

Delving further, I tried calling the clerk in the respective cities in the hopes of gleaning information.  In Charleston, they told me that they did not keep any records of their previous council elections.  In Morgantown, the elections are nonpartisan and thus it would be nearly impossible to determine if any of the candidates were associated with third parties.  Lastly, in Huntington, the clerk told me that they did not have any electronic records of their city council elections.  However, as the election results are listed in the council meeting following the election, one could go through the council minutes for the past two decades to compile the data.  Unfortunately, that data collection would have to take place by hand in the municipal building in Huntington which although may prove valuable, will require considerably more time to collect.  By comparison, the Virginia Board of Elections website includes results for city council elections from 2000 to the present, General Assembly elections from 1947 to the present, and federal elections all the way back to 1789 (though the data appears to be incomplete prior to 1851) (Virginia Elections Database).  If I could offer a policy recommendation for the West Virginia General Assembly, I would suggest that not only should they require localities to report their results to the secretary of state, they should make certain that the records listed on the website are as complete and accurate as possible. 

In a 2012 article comparing the single-member plurality systems in the United States, the United Kingdom, and India, Patrick Dunleavy declares “Duverger’s law is now junk”, finding that “perfect two-party systems like this are now found almost nowhere outside of the USA…in particular, all the major Westminster system countries have shown strong trends toward multi-partism” (Dunleavy 2012).  Richard Winger has the same observation stating “in most two-party systems, there are substantial third parties.  In Great Britain…the Liberal Democratic Party is a very substantial third party…Canada has several very substantial third parties…only in the United States is there a two-party system with no substantial, long-lived third parties” (Winger 1996, 321).  Returning to Taylor, he adds, “the presence of first-past-the post systems do not create such outcomes in Canada, India, or the United Kingdom, such rules do not typically create the type of rigidity that we see in the United States” (Taylor 2018, 725).

What is the difference which can account for the abundance and success of third parties in other first past the post systems and their almost nonexistence in American politics?  Could stringent and unfairly applied ballot access, as mentioned in the case of both Virginia and West Virginia be the key?  Although he explores a much earlier time period than the focus of this paper, Winger argues “ballot access laws for new and small political parties were lenient in the United States, prior to 1930.  In fact, there were no ballot access laws in the U.S. before 1888.”  As a result, “there were several substantial third parties before 1930” (Winger 1996, 322).  He goes on to state that changes were made in ballot access laws due to fears surrounding the Communist Party and although these stringent requirements were successful in their aims to thwart the Communists, they also successfully squelched every other third party as well. (Winger 1996).

However, as mentioned in the early paragraphs, not all researchers agree that more stringent ballot access laws have led to a decline in American third parties.  For example, although Tamas and Hindman admit, as Winger does, that “ballot access laws became gradually more difficult for third-parties since the inception of the Australian ballot…[and]…there was a dramatic drop in the percent of House districts in which third-party candidates were getting onto the ballot…[however]…except in extreme cases, ballot access laws have had only a small impact on the ability of third-parties to get their House candidates onto the ballot” (Tamas & Hindman 2014, 273).  It is important to note that these researchers used data from federal level elections while I focused on state-level results.  It is possible, of course, that there is a discernable difference between the two and invites further explorations. 

In conclusion, the topic of ballot access laws and how they can influence third-party competition and electoral competition in general is an ongoing debate between political scientists that this paper cannot resolve by itself.  However, these West Virginia results provide some clues.  Given the findings of Dunleavy and others, I’d like to examine ballot access laws in both the UK and India to see if they have high thresholds or laws, as found in some US states, which create uneven playing fields so that existing political parties can use their advantage to squelch competition and potential rivals.  If not, this discovery would help explain why Duverger’s Law is still alive and well in this country while other researchers have discredited it when discussing single member plurality systems elsewhere.  Free and fair elections are the supposed hallmark of democratic nations.  After all, unequal ballot access laws clearly violate the international concept of free and fair elections.  “All candidates, parties, and political organizations that wish to run for office should be able to do so and to compete on the basis of equal and impartial treatment under the law and by the authorities” (The OSCE 2007).  If one or more political parties are using electoral laws to enforce a monopoly (or perhaps more appropriately called a duopoly) and prevent potential rivals from mounting a challenge, then the wishes of a majority of the American people for more options at the ballot box will continue to go unrealized. 

Resources

Collet, Christian. 1996. “Trends: Third Parties and the Two-Party System.” Public Opinion Quarterly60(3): 431–49.Opinion Quarterly60(3): 431–49.

Downs, Anthony. 1957. An Economic Theory of Democracy. New York: Harper Collins.

Dunleavy, Patrick. 2012. “Duverger’s Law Is a Dead Parrot. Outside the USA, First-Past-the-Post Voting Has No Tendency at All to Produce Two Party Politics.” USAPP. http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/duvergers-law-dead-parrot-dunleavy/ (November 18, 2018).

Gallup, Inc. 2017. “Perceived Need for Third Major Party Remains High in U.S.” Gallup.com. https://news.gallup.com/poll/219953/perceived-need-third-major-party-remains-high.aspx (November 30, 2018).

“GOP: Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry Fail to Qualify for Virginia Primary.” 2011. NBCNews.com. http://www.nbcnews.com/id/45782410/ns/politics-primaries/t/gop-newt-gingrich-rick-perry-fail-qualify-virginia-primary/#.XACJyBNKg8Y (November 30, 2018).

“Historical Election Results and Turnout.” Secretary of State Mac Warner.             https://sos.wv.gov/elections/Pages/HistElecResults.aspx (November 18, 2018).

Holcombe, Randall G. 1991. “Barriers to Entry and Political Competition.” Journal of Theoretical Politics3(2): 231–40

Mears, Bill. 2012. “Four GOP Candidates Fail to Make Virginia Primary Ballot, Judge Rules – CNNPolitics.” CNN. https://www.cnn.com/2012/01/13/politics/virginia-gop-primary-ballot/index.html (November 18, 2018).

Riker, William H. 1982. “The Two-Party System and Duvergers Law: An Essay on the History of Political Science.” The American Political Science Review76(4): 753–66.

Stratmann, Thomas. 2005. “Ballot Access Restrictions and Candidate Entry in Elections.” European Journal of Political Economy21(1): 59–71.

Tamas, Bernard, and Matthew Dean Hindman. 2014. “Ballot Access Laws and the Decline of American Third-Parties.” Election Law Journal: Rules, Politics, and Policy13(2): 260–76.

The OSCE/ODIHR: Election Observation Handbook. 2007. The OSCE/ODIHR: Election Observation Handbook Warsaw: ODIHR.

“Title 24.2. Elections.” § 24.2-506. Petition of qualified voters required; number of signatures required; certain towns excepted. https://law.lis.virginia.gov/vacode/title24.2/chapter5/section24.2-506/  (November 18, 2018).

“Title 24.2. Elections.” § 24.2-545. Presidential Primary. https://law.lis.virginia.gov/vacode/title24.2/chapter5/section24.2-545/ (November 18, 2018).

Taylor, Steven L. 2018. “Electoral Systems in Context: United States.” In The Oxford Handbook of Electoral Systems, New York, NY: Oxford University Press. essay, 721–39.

Tullock, Gordon. 1965. “Entry Barriers in Politics.” The American Economic Review55(1/2): 458–66.

“Virginia Elections Database » Virginia Election Statistics.” Virginia Elections Database. http://historical.elections.virginia.gov/ (November 30, 2018).

“West Virginia Legislature Passes Major Ballot Access Reform.” 2017. Libertarian Party. https://www.lp.org/news-press-releases-west-virginia-legislature-passes-major-ballot-access-reform/ (November 21, 2018).

Winger, Richard. 1996. “How Ballot Access Laws Affect the U.S. Party System.” American Review of Politics16: 321–50.

The Schmookler & Huffman Show (Episode LXVII)

On the morning of Wednesday, February 13th, Andy Schmookler and I appeared on 550 AM, WSVA for our monthly political radio hour. The main topic of the day was the ongoing controversies with the Governor, Lt. Governor, and Attorney General of Virginia. We also briefly touched on the next potential federal government shutdown and whether President Trump would get his wall funding.

If you missed the show live, you can catch it here.

Freitas for Virginia Senate!

About a year ago, a friend and political activist I’ve known since 2012 contacted me about him running for State Senate in the 2019 elections. Shortly thereafter, I had a similar conversation with another friend and political activist who I’ve known for almost as long. The prospect of having two new liberty-minded individuals in the Virginia Senate was an exciting idea. The only problem was that both were in the same Senate district and both were seeking to challenge Emmett Hanger (Big Government-Augusta) for the Republican nomination. For those familiar with Virginia politics, we saw this situation play out four years ago when Dan Moxley and Marshall Pattie both sought to unseat Hanger. Given the anti-Hanger vote was split, neither was able to mount a successful challenge.

Fortunately, these two friends were able to hash things out and today, February 4th, Tina Freitas has publicly announced that she is exploring the idea of running for the Virginia Senate against Emmett Hanger in the 24th district. I would assume that most readers of this site are familiar with Tina Freitas’ husband, Delegate Nick Freitas (R-Culpeper), arguably the most liberty-friendly member of the Virginia General Assembly. Over these last several years, I have had a multitude of conversations with both of them and am pleased to say that she shares my philosophy of promoting limited government and individual liberty.

As she writes in her statement:

While I respect Sen. Hanger as a man, I strongly disagree with much of his voting record and his tendency to vote in line with the Democrat agenda on key issues. For instance, he was the vote that killed Constitutional Carry and he spent the past several years pushing for Medicaid expansion, finally ramming it through last session in a budget which sent two million dollars to Planned Parenthood. This is not reflective of our respect for human life, or our defense of Constitutional Rights here in the 24th.

We are an overwhelmingly conservative district, but unfortunately we are represented as if Hanger is ashamed of the principles which we share here in the 24th. Given that the Democrats have made their new agenda clear in recent days, Hanger’s pattern of voting with the Democrats has become exponentially more dangerous.

She adds, “I will be taking this next week to determine if there are enough people who agree with me on this point and would support me in a campaign to seek our party’s nomination.”

Reclaiming Virginia from the big government, crony capitalist, anti-freedom forces which have taken root in Richmond require strong, principled leadership and I believe electing Tina Freitas is a bold step in the right direction.

If you think Tina Freitas ought to run, I would encourage you to head over to her Facebook page and let her know.

Are Political Parties Important and Necessary for American Democracy?

John Aldrich begins Why Parties? with a bold statement from E. E. Schattschneider which states that “political parties created democracy, and…democracy is unthinkable save in terms of parties” (Aldrich 3).  He goes on to add that “it is necessary to have a party system, an ongoing competition between two or more durable parties” (Aldrich 12).   Throughout his first chapter, he illustrates several key concepts of democratic elections.  One important feature of democracy includes free and fair competition between actors seeking elected office.  Strong parties, Aldrich argues aids ambitious politicians and having two or more of them serve the public interest of preventing one faction controlling the government unchecked. (Aldrich 15-16).  But are these viewpoints actually reflected in the American political system?

As the author mentions, George Washington’s addresses the issue of parties in his farewell presidential address.  “I have already intimated to you the danger of parties in the State, with particular reference to the founding of them on geographical discriminations.  Let me now take a more comprehensive view and warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party generally…The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism.  The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty” (Washington).  It is a concern that troubled Madison as well when he wrote Federalist No. 10 nine years earlier.

Aldrich points out in his third chapter that although there was considerable instability in voting coalitions in the First Congress, the body operated without the assistance of a party system.  Along these same lines, in V.O. Key’s study of the South in the late 1800s to the mid-1900s, the region was dominated by a single party, the Democratic Party.  “Two-party competition would have meant the destruction of southern solidarity in national politics-in presidential elections and in the halls of Congress” (Key 8-9).  In some southern states, such as Virginia, a political machine, in this case, the Byrd Organization, more or less dominated politics and thus elections were not a competitive affair nor, one could argue, democratic.  This idea conjures up the idea of party bosses gathering in smoke-filled rooms in order to determine who ran the state.  Elections were merely a formality, window-dressing presenting the façade of democracy.   However, other southern states were a different matter.  As Key illustrates in his chapter regarding Alabama, although the Democratic Party nominee for any office easily bested his opponent or opponents in the general election, Republican or otherwise, the race for the Democratic primary was often a lively affair.  He shows in Table 3 that 7 candidates sought the nomination for Alabama’s 8th Congressional District in 1946.  The state was divided not on the basis of party, but regionalism, with candidates typically receiving a high percentage of the vote in either their home counties, neighboring counties, and counties with which they or their campaign has some association (Key 38-43).  To quote Aldrich, “until recently being a Republican in the South provided a reputation, but one that made winning all but impossible” (Aldrich 49).

Returning to the beginning of Aldrich, he writes, “the political party as a collective enterprise…provides the only means for holding elected officials accountable” (Aldrich 3).  But is this statement necessarily true?  Consider the case of Representative Eric Cantor (VA-7).  Over time his district voters were growing dissatisfied with him. Normally re-elected with at least 63% of the vote in his previous elections, his vote percentage dropped to the high 50s in the 2010 and 2012 contests.  Nevertheless, the district was a safe Republican (Sabato) and, given his influence as the House Majority Leader, the party leadership had no incentive to replace him.  With Downs’ median voter theorem, parties will seek to converge toward the ideology of the largest segment of segment of the population (Downs) but Cook rated the 7th as Solid Republican (Ballotpedia) so it would be difficult for a Democratic candidate to position him or herself so far right on the ideological spectrum to mount a serious challenge, especially against a powerful incumbent like Cantor.  Therefore, citizens had little chance to hold him accountable in a general election given the makeup of the district due, in part, to gerrymandering by the Republican-controlled legislature.  In 2014, an unknown college professor named David Brat shocked the nation when he successfully defeated Cantor for the Republican nomination by challenging him as a more strident conservative.  With this Brat/Cantor illustration, it isn’t really the two-party system holding elected officials accountable, but rather an opportune candidate seizing the right moment within a single party.  Updating this example with recent data, in 2016 the courts ruled that Virginia’s 3rd district was unconstitutionally gerrymandered, therefore the surrounding districts, including the 7th, were redrawn making it more competitive.  Thus, what was a safe Republican district several years ago ended up switching to the Democratic Party by a narrow margin in the 2018 elections (New York Times).

Although Aldrich might decry it as undemocratic, I would argue that this sort of state and regionalism that Alabama experienced in the early 1900s was what the writers of the Constitution expected would happen in American politics…at least before the advent of national political parties.  After all, in Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution the writers seek to safeguard against states simply voting for their favored sons for both president and vice president by stating, “The Electors shall meet in their respective States, and vote by Ballot for two Persons, of whom one at least shall not be an Inhabitant of the same State with themselves.” (U.S. Constitution).  We see this Alabama situation play out in the presidential election of 1824 with four candidates from the Democratic-Republican Party each winning his respective home state. As no candidate received a majority of the Electoral College vote, the decision fell to the House of Representatives.  Rewinding to the previous election, known as the Era of Good Feelings, the collapse of the Federalist Party led James Monroe to an easy reelection with no serious opposition.  As Aldrich writes, “the birth of party politics in a form recognizable even today can be fairly be dated to 1828” (Aldrich 102).  Setting aside the issue that only a small fraction of the population was eligible to vote, despite the lack of a stable two-party system prior to 1828, I have not found much literature to suggest that the United States was not considered democratic from its founding to 1828 nor much support for the claim that political parties created democracy given that the United States government predates the party system.  As another example, in the city of Staunton, Virginia, the birthplace of President Woodrow Wilson, both city council and school board elections are nonpartisan affairs.  Even without the lack of party labels and cues, competitive elections are common in Staunton, and as far as I’ve found no one has declared that democracy is dead in the Queen City of the Shenandoah Valley.

Even though most elections feature candidates nominated by one or more major political parties, to argue, as Schattschenider does, that “political parties created democracy, and…democracy is unthinkable save in terms of parties” (Aldrich 3), does not appear have much supporting evidence in the history of the American political system.  After all, political parties didn’t begin to take shape until many years after the founding of the present government.  In addition, two-party competition was and is still absent in some regions and localities.  Nevertheless, spirited competition can still persist in its absence.  Democracies do not necessarily require a multitude of political parties or any parties at all, and, in the case of gerrymandering, strong parties can mute elections’ ability to reflect the peoples’ will through the redrawing district lines to make them safe or uncompetitive.

If parties are not necessary for democracy, are they still important?  Here scholars disagree as well.  Using data from ANES surveys, Aldrich displays a chart on page 265 which shows that as of late parties have become less important as apathy toward the parties has increased stating, “parties had become increasingly irrelevant but became at least as relevant to voters by 2008 as in the 1950s” (Aldrich 264).  He goes on to add that “voting thus became candidate centered and parties as mechanisms for understanding candidates, campaigns, and elections became less relevant” (Aldrich 268).   However, other scholars debate the theory of party decline.  Exploring data from NES surveys and DW-Nominate scores, Hetherington reaches a different conclusion stating, “Although parties in the 1990s are not as central to Americans as they were in the 1950s, they are far more important today than in the 1970s and 1980s.” (Hetherington 619).  Then, we have Krehbiel who looks at the partisan composition of Congress in committees and suggests, quoting David Broder, that “’the party’s over’ in the United States and perhaps winding down in Great Britain” (Kreibel 260).

Lastly, when considering their importance, how should one go about defining partisanship?  Is it simply the number of voters who register to vote under the banner of a particular party?  But what if these citizens don’t actually show up to vote?  If they have no level of civic engagement, should they still be counted as partisans?  And what about states which do not have registration by political party?  Should partisanship be measured, as Hetherington does, through respondent thermometer scores of the respective parties or through straight ticket voting?  However, then we run into the matter of whether feeling scores accurately reflect partisanship or could they simply be a lesser of two evils mentality?  What about environments, such as Key’s observations about the solid South, where a viable candidate from a party outside of the Democratic wasn’t viable?  Or how about the fact that some states offer their voters a straight ticket voting option at the very beginning of their ballots while others do not?  Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a single universal answer to the question of how one ought to define partisanship and the answer one selects likely plays a heavy role in determining how important partisanship is in American politics.

Returning to the question posed in the title of this paper, are political parties important and necessary for American democracy, I would argue, for the reasons mentioned, that they are not a necessity.  Then are they important?  They are, but their exact value is difficult to measure.  Whether you love or hate them, parties provide a host of cues for voters who do not wish to expend the effort necessary to learn the details about each of the candidates running for office.  And, at the end of the day, candidates who seek to win or maintain office without the support of one of the two major parties usually fail.  But, as Aldrich claims in his 2nd chapter of Why Parties? political parties exist, not for the public interest, but primarily to serve the desires of ambitious politicians who seek to gain and maintain power for themselves.  It is interesting to speculate what would happen in American politics if parties were to disappear overnight.  If history provides an accurate guide, democracy would not be destroyed, and the causes of factions would still remain, of course, but, like the First Congress, it would be difficult to maintain two solid camps with an “us vs. them mentality”.  Who can say?  We might just see a more civil political environment as compared to our present state of hyperpolarization.

 

Resources

Aldrich, John H. 2011. Why Parties?: a Second Look. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Downs, Anthony. 1957. An Economic Theory of Democracy. New York: HarperCollins.

Hetherington, Marc J. 2001. “Resurgent Mass Partisanship: The Role of Elite Polarization.” American Political Science Review95(03): 619–31.

Key, V. O. [1949] 1984. Southern Politics in State and Nation. New ed. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press.

Krehbiel, Keith. 1993. “Where’s the Party?” British Journal of Political Science23(2): 235–66.

“Sabato’s Crystal Ball.” Larry J Sabato’s Crystal Ball RSS. http://www.centerforpolitics.org/crystalball/2014-house/ (November 5, 2018).

U.S. Constitution. Art. II, Sec.1

“Virginia’s 7th Congressional District Elections, 2014.” Ballotpediahttps://ballotpedia.org/Virginia’s_7th_Congressional_District_elections,_2014 (November 6, 2018).

“Virginia’s 7th House District Election Results: Dave Brat vs. Abigail Spanberger.” The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/elections/results/virginia-house-district-7 (November 7, 2018).

Washington, George. Avalon Project – Washington’s Farewell Address 1796. http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/washing.asp (November 5, 2018).

The Schmookler & Huffman Show (Episode LXIII)

In a break from our traditional schedule, this morning, October 29th, Andy Schmookler and I appeared on 550 AM, WSVA to discuss local, state, and national politics.  Not surprisingly, the major focus of the talk centered around the 2018 elections, which will be taking place next week.  We offered some predictions of outcomes as well as big issues and people which could end up swaying the results.

Our next show will be on November 7th at 9:15, the day after Election Day.

If you missed the show live, you can catch it here.

No Republican November

This week, I plan to submit my absentee ballot for the November elections in Virginia.  As I am away from home due to graduate school, along with the fact that I’ll be working the polls in West Virginia for a class assignment, unfortunately, I’ll be unable to vote in person.

2018 marks my twentieth time voting in the general election (unless you include the 2009 election.  In that year I was working in Newport News and apparently my ballot got lost in the mail).  Except for two years, in all of those elections, I have voted for at least one Republican candidate.  This year will mark the third time I will not be voting for a single Republican.

Why is that?  Well, let’s go down through the races.  At the top of the ticket, we have Corey Stewart.  I first met Mr. Stewart in 2011 when he was planning a run for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate against George Allen.  Since that time, he has run for a multitude of statewide offices: Lt. Governor in 2013, Governor in 2017, and now U.S. Senate again in 2018.  In that time I have found Mr. Stewart to be dishonest and self-serving, willing to say or do just about anything in order to achieve political power.  Despite his rhetoric,  he is not a conservative, but rather a populist who is more than happy to expand the power of government and mold it to serve his interests.  With the exception of Representative Bob Goodlatte, who fortunately is retiring after 26  long years in office, I rarely block any campaign staffers on Facebook…with the notable exception of Corey Stewart.  After asking not to be tagged, two of his particularly rude and hostile staffers kept pestering me thus resulting in this action.

That matter leads me to another point.  Corey Stewart states that he wants to go to Washington to help enact President Donald Trump’s agenda.  Regrettably, the Republican Party has more or less become Donald Trump’s party and activists and politicians alike think it is important to do whatever he desires.  But what about principles? What about checks and balances?  Since when did we think it a good idea to elect men and woman to Congress who pledge to be rubber stamps for the executive branch even when he violates the values of limited government and faithfulness to the Constitution? This kind of behavior would make sense if we lived in an authoritarian dictatorship, but we supposedly live in a democratic republic, right?  Or at least we used to.  As I wrote on Delegate Wilt’s (R-26) Facebook page, “I’d like to see real, honest conservatives in Congress, those who will support the Constitution, a limited federal government, cutting spending and the national debt, supporting the President when he shares our values, but standing up to him and opposing him when he does not.  Unfortunately, at the moment, that line of thinking is extremely rare.”

Moving down the ballot, we come to the race for the 6th district, to replace Representative Bob Goodlatte.  As regular readers of this website know, I have written favorably about Delegate Ben Cline, the Republican nominee, for many years.  One big issue for me was the selection of one of his staffers.  Having several previous negative interactions with this fellow, I thought it best to alert Delegate Cline about some related potentially unethical activity.  After all, as they say, personnel is policy and as I liked Delegate Cline I didn’t want to see him get mixed up with anyone who might have “the ends justify the means” mentality.  Given my concerns, Delegate Cline told me that I would have no interaction with this person during the campaign.  However, several days after the Republican convention, this staffer in question wrote me several Facebook messages to taunt me for warning Cline.  I felt that this response was unconscionable.

Given some of the controversies surrounding the 6th district Republican convention, questions lingered in my mind if the Cline campaign had some hand in these shady, legally questionable dealings, such as the website SwampyScottSayre.com.  Try as I could, I could neither confirm or refute the campaign’s involvement.

In addition, we have the issue of Corey Stewart and Donald Trump.  While some Republican candidates have done their best to avoid Stewart, Cline has not.  That news is particularly disappointing.  As the News Leader reports:

“One who has embraced Stewart, appearing with him at campaign events, is Del. Ben Cline, who’s running the 6th Congressional District.

Several Republicans candidates have opted against campaigning with Stewart, telling the Post that they prefer to ‘run our own campaign.'”

If ISideWith.com is correct, my issue agreement with Delegate Cline mirrors that of Representative Goodlatte and we disagree on some fundamental points regarding foreign policy and national security.  Although I know he had a Republican audience, when Delegate Cline announced support of building Trump’s wall at the 6th district Republican convention, I felt my spirits sink.

I read emails from the Cline campaign hoping that they speak of principles of limited government and a faithfulness to the Constitution.  I abhor the use of fear to stir up the worst in the minds of voters.  For example, one from August 14th states, “I’m running for Congress to listen to and represent the people of the 6th District, not people like Nancy Pelosi and her liberal friends.  They’re stepping up to help liberal candidates across the country, including my opponent, which is why I need my friends here in Virginia and the 6th district to match these efforts…Let’s keep the 6th District red in November!”  Another dated September 27th reads, “Sending me to Washington will mean one less seat towards a Democrat majority – together we can stop Nancy Pelosi from becoming Speaker of the House again.”  Personally, I don’t really care which party controls the Speakership if that party’s only purpose is to surrender its authority to the executive branch or obstruct if their party doesn’t control the presidency.  Either way, both of them will continue to expand the national debt.  In addition, we must reject the rhetoric of the red team vs the blue team.  These days both sides are more interested in winning and maintaining power for themselves than the conservative, libertarian, and liberal activists than get them there in the first place!

Lastly, we have Frank McMillan who is running for Harrisonburg City Council.  Although technically running as an independent, I’ve heard him speak at Republican gatherings and he declared that he was a Republican.  In addition, according to VPAP, his largest donor is the Harrisonburg/Rockingham Republican Women’s Club.  If he is a Republican, he ought to run as a Republican and not misuse the independent label as the party did in the previous 2014 election cycle.   Rather than try to fix the Republican brand in Harrisonburg, which has become so heavily tainted than it is nearly impossible to win in the city with the label, they instead run their candidates as independents.  I don’t think it is an honest tactic and preys upon the ignorance of some voters.

My ISideWith.com results. As I disagree with them both at nearly the same rate, to quote Hillary Clinton, “what difference does it make?”

Now just because I’m not voting Republican, that doesn’t mean that I am voting Democratic either.  If I were forced to chose between the two, I would prefer Tim Kaine to Corey Stewart.  At least Senator Kaine has never personally lied to me.  Although I disagree with a lot of what Kaine does, at least he doesn’t bow to Donald Trump, but I am not voting for him as I don’t cast my vote in that way.  Unfortunately, I don’t know enough about Jennifer Lewis to speak about her candidacy either positively or negatively and I always recommend not voting for a person out of ignorance.

No matter how we vote, I predict that Democrat Tim Kaine will defeat Republican Corey Stewart by a healthy margin and Republican Ben Cline will likewise triumph over Jennifer Lewis.  I hope both Senator Kaine and soon to be Representative Cline will represent the state and the 6th district with honor.

Whether you vote absentee as I am doing, or vote on November 6th, I encourage you to learn about the candidates and vote for the ones who best represent your principles.