The plight, and success, of minor parties in Connecticut
“It’s not easy bein’ green,” sang Kermit the Frog in “Bein’ Green.”
Connecticut’s Green Party can relate. As outlined in a recent story by Day political reporter Sten Spinella, it was a tough election for the party that focuses on environmentalism, social justice, seeks drastic reductions in military spending, and that strives for grassroots democracy freed from the influence of big money.
In many races the party failed to achieve the 1% threshold necessary to retain party-line status in Connecticut. That means if Green Party candidates for races such as governor, congressperson and attorney general want to get a place on the ballot in future elections, they will have to undertake the difficult, resource-consuming effort to collect thousands of signatures.
It is hard for any minor party to gain significant political influence in our two-party dominant system. In any election that could be close, voters are reluctant to vote third party, concerned it could help the “wrong” major party candidate win.
This means a liberal whose values align with the Greens may well decide they can’t take a chance helping the Republican win, and so will place the safe vote with the Democrat. Likewise, a strong fiscal conservative who believes less government is good government, may gravitate ideologically to a Libertarian candidate, but in the end vote Republican to try to keep a Democrat out of office.
Greens have had more success in Europe, where parliamentary systems can give significant political influence to a minor party if the elected members of that party are needed to form a government.
It is not fair to say, however, that votes for Green Party and other minor-party candidates are “wasted.” A vote expresses a viewpoint. Even if that viewpoint has no chance of prevailing, it is a message sent, one that the major parties may have to consider if enough votes are siphoned away.
And minor parties can have success at the local level, where grassroots politics hold greater sway. The Working Families Party has elected candidates in Bridgeport, for example.
Third-party candidates have prevailed in state races in recent history. But these were not true third-party movements, but temporary constructs for already well-known candidates to challenge the major parties.
In 1990, former Senator Lowell Weicker Jr. abandoned the Republican Party to run for governor under the “A Connecticut Party” banner. He won with only 40% of the vote, defeating Republican John G. Rowland and Democrat Bruce Morrison. Weicker then notoriously or courageously — depending on your point of view — pressured the legislature to create an income tax in Connecticut for the first time, addressing a fiscal crisis. He did not seek re-election.
In 2006, Sen. Joe Lieberman lost the Democratic primary to Ned Lamont, who focused his attack on Lieberman’s support for the unpopular Iraq War. Lieberman then created and ran as the candidate of the “Connecticut for Lieberman Party,” winning the general election. Lieberman also did not seek re-election.
Both parties quickly faded without the big personalities around which they formed.
Connecticut’s Working Family Party has forged a path to relevancy by offering cross-endorsements to Democrats willing to take up some of its progressive causes, giving those candidate two lines on the ballot. The Working Family influence can be found in the legislature’s adoption of paid family leave and gradual increases in the minimum wage.
The Independent Party has likewise cross-endorsed, almost exclusively for Republicans, but without gaining the kind of influence of Working Families. Signaling the party may be ready to move toward its goal of true independence, it ran its own candidate for governor in November — Robert Hotaling — but lost its ballot status in the process when Hotaling got 0.97% of the vote, just under the 1% threshold.
Such are the struggles of third parties.
We would like to see a serious debate on ranked-choice voting, which would allow voters to rank their choices from different parties. This would permit a voter to name a Green, for example, as her top choice without fear of throwing her vote away. If the Green finishes last, and is eliminated, the voter’s second choice would then be counted in determining a winner.
But Democrats, now dominant in Connecticut at the state and congressional level, will be reluctant to open that door. The minor parties should unite in a campaign to educate the public and pressure the party in power to give ranked choice voting a forum.