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The Party Line is dedicated to examining regional issues and policies through the figures who give shape to them. These are critical, complex, and even downright confusing times we live in. There’s a lot to navigate nationally and in the Carolinas; whether it’s elections, debates on gay marriage, public school closings, or tax incentives for economic development. The Party Line’s goal is to offer a provocative, intelligent look at the issues and players behind the action; a view that ultimately offers the necessary insight for Carolina voters to hold public servants more accountable.

Two-Party System Successfully Blocks Competition

I was sitting in my office reading the news that third-party Americans Elect failed to secure a viable candidate when I got an e-mail from Julie Rose of WFAE, hoping for some insight on the issue.

As we discussed the latest attempt at creating a viable third party, I went through a litany of different reasons why the American electoral system ultimately comes down to just two major parties. While Julie’s reporting (her first story here and her must recent here) are well done, I thought I might spend a blog post deciphering the various reasons why the U.S. has traditionally been a two-party system.

Factor 1: the formal rules of the game are stacked against third party attempts. At the heart of my view of American politics is the analogy of a “game,” and with most games, there are rules to playing the game.

Most notably is the rule regarding gaining access to the all-important ballot. In North Carolina, there are a number of requirements that detail how a party can gain access to the piece ballot. A state statute defines the particulars:

1. For any new political party to gain ballot access, they must obtain signatures of registered and qualified voters on a petition equal to at least 2% of the total number of votes cast for Governor in the most recent election by no later than 12:00 noon on the first day of June before the election in which the Party wishes to participate.

Notice that there are at least two key requirements in this one section alone. First, secure 85,379 signatures from registered, qualified voters, and second, at least five months before the general election. But wait, there’s more:

2. “Also the petitions must be signed by at least 200 registered voters from … four congressional districts in North Carolina.”

And beyond the exact numbers of signatures, new political parties must adhere to certain requirements:

3. New political parties must have a designated chairman, as well as a specific name that does not contain “any word that appears in the name of an existing political party recognized in this state or if, in the Board’s opinion, the name is so similar to that of an existing political party recognized in the state as to confuse or mislead the voters at an election.”

So, basically, the “Republican-Democratic Party” wouldn’t work in North Carolina.

4. Each petition “shall be presented to the chairman of the board of elections of the county in which the signatures were obtained.”

So, instead of presenting all of the petitions to the State Board of Elections in Raleigh, the new political party has to go before the county in which the signatures were gained. Granted, probably nothing more than a bureaucratic roadblock, but certainly one not designed to enable easy access. But here’s another “time requirement.”

5. “The group of petitioners shall submit the petitions … no later than 5:00 PM on the fifteenth day preceding the date the petitions are due to be filed with the State Board of Elections.”

So, let’s say that a group of citizens doesn’t want to form a political party, but instead nominate an “unaffiliated” candidate on the ballot (for example, another Ross Perot candidacy).

Ironically, the process is almost identical to having a new political party put on the ballot as well, except instead of having “12:00 noon on the first day of June” requirement, it is “12:00 noon on the last Friday in June.”

But everything else stays the same. Why? Because guess who wrote the rules of the game? The party in control.

Americans Elect did jump through all the hoops and gained access to the general election in North Carolina; and it’s to their credit that they were able to surmount a fairly rigorous obstacle course to do so. In fact, before they discontinued their efforts, they had achieved access to 29 state ballots.

But beyond these “formal” rules of the game, there are some informal factors that stymie third party chances for success. I’ll cover those in the next post.