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More Parties or Directly Elect the President. You Can’t Have Both.

Yard signs in Houston
Yard signs in Houston
Photo by Jef Rouner

Voting in the Democratic Primary is about to start (In Texas, early voting begins February 18). That means that in very short order a whole lot of Democrats are going to be very disappointed or angry when their preferred candidate doesn't win the nomination. Inevitably, it a lot of them will start screaming about how the two-party system is crap, man. We should have more parties! After all, didn’t Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez say that in another country she and Joe Biden wouldn’t even be in the same party?

We could have more parties… as long as you’re happy never directly electing the president again.

The two-party system is not explicitly sanctioned in the United States Constitution, but it is heavily protected by it thanks to two sections. The first is Article II which reads: The Person having the greatest Number of Votes shall be the President, if such a Number be a Majority of the whole Number of Electors appointed. Majority is the important word in the sentence. It means “more than half” as opposed to plurality, which is just the most of a set. If one person gets 40 percent of the vote, and two others get 30 percent each, no one wins outright. That’s the way the law is written.

The second is the Twelfth Amendment, ratified in 1804. This amendment ended the original presidential framework in the Constitution where the winner became president and the runner-up became vice president. Starting in 1804, the president and veep would run as a team, and this effectively codified the two-party system. It also reinforced the necessity of a majority, not a plurality.

It’s true that the Founders were generally opposed to political parties at first, but there’s not much they could do about them forming. The presidency was literally built around George Washington. As historian Richard Shenkman put it, “they didn’t know what a president was, but they knew George Washington was it.” However, by establishing such a monumental and uniquely popular figure as the head of state, it all but guaranteed his lieutenants, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, would begin to start alliances to fight one another for the right to succeed Washington. That’s what happened, and frankly its what has also happened in just about every major democracy on Earth. Parties are inevitable. There is no use pining for a world where they don’t exist.

On the other hand, the Founders also did not want people directly electing the president. The much-hated Electoral College is a vestige of that, but even it wasn’t supposed to matter all that much. The assumption from the framers of the Constitution was that most elections would end up in the House of Representatives, which is what is supposed to happen when there is no majority. If say, Jill Stein, had managed to carry a couple of states in 2016, then the Republican-controlled House would have decided the president instead of the voters.

This is the problem with pie-in-the-sky wishes for more parties in the American system. None of them seems to take into account that fact that it’s not as simple as running a popular candidate from a party outside the two major ones. There is an entire framework that must be adhered to or changed through constitutional amendment, which is a monumental task.

It’s fine to point to other countries with more than two parties, but you also have to realize that their heads of state are not directly elected by the people. They are chosen by their parties. In Canada, the prime minister is elected by the House of Commons. The same goes for Great Britain. They don’t directly elect the president of India by popular vote either; it goes through both houses of parliament and the assemblies of each state. The prime minister of India is appointed by the president. Similar models exist in Germany, Australia, and so on. Countries with more than two major parties are mostly run with parliamentary systems that do not allow direct election of the head of state.

It’s not necessarily a bad idea to have the House of Representatives choose the president. They are the chamber of Congress most reactive to the people, since they represent smaller areas and have to be elected every two years. If we ever get the gerrymandering under control, they could serve as good ciphers for the will of America. Or possibly to thwart a mistake being made by 60 million people.

In fact, FiveThirtyEight had a great breakdown of how such a scenario could have delivered us President Evan McMullin in 2016. At one point, McMullin, Hillary Clinton, and Donald Trump were running nearly neck-and-neck in McMullin’s home state of Utah. While Utah’s six Electoral College votes couldn’t make him president outright, had Clinton carried, say, Florida while he carried Utah then the whole thing would have gone to the House with McMullin as a viable candidate for president since Trump would have been short the 270 votes needed to win. What would the Republican House have done with a conservative alternative to Trump? Who can say?

Imagine for a bit that Texas had an equivalent to the Scottish National Party or the Quebec Liberal Party. It’s not inconceivable that enough Texans would back a party that was more for Texas sovereignty than American hegemony. In 2016, Public Policy Polling asked Texans if they would like to secede if Clinton became president. Both support and opposition polled in the 40s, with 12 percent undecided. If Texas fielded our version of a McMullin, but one who controlled the state’s 38 Electoral College votes, they would be an automatic spoiler for many elections. Whether you consider that a good or a bad thing is up to you, but it’s probably the most likely outcome of a major third party here in Texas.

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However, even if we did move to a system where multiple parties meant that the presidency would be decided in the House, we have to wonder how that would affect a situation like the one we are in now with Trump and impeachment. In parliamentary systems, the legislatures have the ability to vote no confidence in their heads of state to pick a new one. There is no constitutional mechanism for that in America. The only thing that can be done is impeachment, and while that might work in the House, there is the Senate to consider.

The Senate may not be the one to pick the presidents, but they do try them for removal. They are also far less reactive, representing whole states and serving six-year terms. While it’s conceivable that the House could become a body made up of different factions that form coalitions, the Senate is likely to remain mostly binary with a handful of independents who rarely step away from the caucus they are allied with.

Presidents chosen by this hypothetical multi-party system under the current constitutional framework will still be just as threatened or protected by the two-party gridlock in the Senate as they are now when it comes to oversight. If a minority party candidate like McMullin was selected, he would have to appease the Republicans just as much as any Republican would. Very little would be any different in a practical sense, and switching out dangerous presidents would be just as hard as it is now. We would essentially have the mess pf a parliamentary system without the the best part: relatively painless removal of the chief executive in response to public pressure.

I understand the frustration that people get from the two-party system. Most of the people running for the Democratic nomination are not people I want as president. However, the system that we have is not one that can be changed just by willing a popular third candidate into 34 percent of the vote. In all likelihood what will happen is what has always happened over the course of the nation: the new candidate will be absorbed into the binary out of necessity. The two-party system will require major constitutional reform to ever destroy, and there is no indication that the Republicans or Democrats have any vested interest in doing that. It’s hard to even see a scenario where the practicalities of a major third party are even desirable within our system as it is. For sure, it would be the end of one-person, one-vote ever choosing the president again. That's less choice in who leads the nation, not more. 

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