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Electoral Math and Third-Party Candidates

third party candidates

Podcast Editor Sam Pennifold on third-party candidates and how they change the electoral math of American presidential elections.

What happens when third-party candidates like Kanye runs for president? How does it change electoral math? The answer is simple – massively. The effects though are less simple.

In any democracy, anyone and everyone should have the right to run for public office. Otherwise, it is not a democracy. While some may dismiss Kanye West’s campaign as a joke, it is fluffing the promise of democracy and one can only hope that unqualified candidates are removed by voters – not that is the most qualified field in the history of US elections.

The United States’ democracy is one of the most complicated in the world, though to grossly oversimplify it, one can imagine it as a scaled-up version of the British system.

The US has two houses of government, the House of Representatives and the Senate. This together with the Office of the President forms the government. All three hold different elections.

States have a set number of congressmen (a member of the House of Representatives) based on their population. This is why California has 53 and Alaska has only one. Each state has two senators, regardless of their population.

Elections for the House of Representatives happen every two years and elections for the senate happen every six years. This means that, during a presidency, there is always at least one midterm election for the House of Representatives. This acts as a way to grade the president’s performance so far, essentially.

In a US general election though, the electoral college comes in to play. There are 538 members of the electoral college in total. Each state has as many electors as they do members of Congress and Senators combined, plus three representatives from the District of Columbia.

This means that states such as California, Texas, and New York – the most populous – become hotly contested battlegrounds every four years. Battleground states are often called ‘swing states’ because they often switch alliances in elections. There are some safe states though, such as New York – which almost always votes democrat, and Georgia – which almost always votes republican.

Each state, to simplify, essentially has a popular election to decide who electors cast their votes for in the electoral college. Maine and Nebraska do this proportionally. The magic number of electoral college votes is 270… normally.

Third-party candidates alter this. Now, in theory, the general election enters a system of plurality. The winner now no longer requires a majority, rather the most electoral college votes. It can also fundamentally change the nature of what we consider to be a ‘swing state’ by splitting usual voting patterns.

The ultimate impact of this is that a third party candidate has the potential to draw power away from the established parties of America and, if Kanye mounts a serious campaign, both parties could have to fight for every vote. The usual scramble between politicians to claim bipartisan ideas as theirs could become tighter and the positions of candidates will be even more cross-examined, as you have more choice.

Some have warned that Kanye’s run could split the ‘black vote’ – as if it was a bloc – and weaken the Democratic Party. Rather, I think that it could actually force the democrats into genuine action, and now really is the time to publicly apply pressure to the Democratic Party so they have to work harder for every single individual’s vote.

Kanye will undoubtedly be facing an uphill battle to get on to the ballot in many states, let alone to receive any votes in the electoral college. And, whilst many of the views he has expressed before and now has been called inflammatory, he is right in one regard. Voters of any race, gender, or socio-economic standing should not be treated as a monolith, and he has every right to run.



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