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Commentary Government & Politics

Frank DeFilippo: A Second Chance for a Third Party?

Political parties in Maryland, as with most of America, come in two flavors – Democrat(ic) and Republican.

There are four other recognized parties fiddling at the margins – Libertarian, Green, Bread and Roses, and Working Class – which together amount to a piffling 20,000 voters. But by far the fastest growing bloc of voters in the state are those who are unaffiliated, but like to be called independents because the word conveys a rebellious spirit.

There are now 788,104 registered independents in Maryland, almost as many as there are Republicans, who chalk up at 1,021 million. Democrats still rule the roost by more than 2-1, with 2,284 million registered voters. There’s another category of voters listed as “other,” whoever and whatever those anonymous 41,096 registrants represent.

It’s those 788,104 independents, and their like-minded brethren across the country, along with isolated traditional Republicans, who are causing an itch among academics and other deep thinkers who believe the rejection by independents of both major parties is a signal of disgust and the impetus to form a third major political party.

Even more stunning are the national numbers. There are 32 states that require registration by party. The rest allow open registration or some variation. Within those 32 states, in 2020, there were 47 million registered Democrats, 35 million Republicans and – are you ready for this? – 33 million registered independents or voters classified as miscellaneous.

Maryland, like many other states, prohibits independents from voting in primary elections, and for good reason. Primaries are considered family business to be discussed and settled internally. So why should voters who’ve rejected both parties be allowed to participate in their decisions? Similarly, crossover elections are open to the same skullduggery, as when Republicans cross over to vote for the weakest Democrat – or vice versa – to ease the way for their own party’s success.


Frank A. DeFilippo

Again, across that 32-state framework, there are a number of fringe parties that siphon off voters from mainstream politics but illustrate the difficulty in attracting majority-party status: Libertarian Party, 652,261 registered voters; Green Party, 240,222; Constitution Party, 129,556; WK Family Party, 49,758; Reform Party, 9,004; and other parties, 1.814 million.

In all, there are 213 million registered voters in America, and of those, 159 million voted in 2020.

A third party has long been a dream of occasional dissidents and a cantankerous few, especially those candidates who are unable to attract the votes of either Democrats or Republicans. They’re called spoilers. Remember Ross Perot? He collected 19% of the vote and handed the election to Bill Clinton by draining votes away from President George H. W. Bush.

There have been dozens of third-party presidential candidates over the decades, from Millard Fillmore to Gary Johnson. Among them was William Wirt, of Bladensburg, Md., who served as U.S. attorney general under James Monroe and ran for president as the anti-Masonic candidate in 1832.

But hold your horses. Even the defeated former President Trump, whose thinking is about a millimeter deep, dismissed the idea of a third party. But his rejection was self-serving and ego-tripping, as are most of Trump’s actions, and a determination to tighten his authoritarian grip on the servile GOP, as is his tease to run again in 2024.

Forming a third party is not as simple as signing and submitting a sheet of paper. To do so actually requires forming 50 different parties, one in each state, and each state with a different list of qualifying requirements, notably out-and-about with clipboards for gathering signatures (difficult and intrusive these pandemic days).

Democrats and Republicans made the rules difficult precisely to prevent the formation of third parties, and they intend to keep it that way.

To form a political party in Maryland, for example, requires sponsors to submit a valid petition containing the signatures of at least 10,000 eligible voters with the State Board of Elections. To retain its legitimacy and status, the party’s candidate must poll at least 1% of the vote in the next general election, or at least 1% of the state’s registered voters must be affiliated with the party by the year’s end.

It is worth the trouble? Well, the last time it happened, seriously, was in 1856, when the Republican Party subsumed the Whigs, who just kind of fizzled and endorsed the American Party. The most successful third-party candidate in history was Theodore Roosevelt, who ran as the candidate of the Progressive Party in 1912. Roosevelt outpolled the candidate of an established party, William Howard Taft. Roosevelt collected 27.4% of the vote.

In 1968, Gov. George C. Wallace, of Alabama, nominally a Democrat, ran as the candidate of the American Independent Party against Richard M. Nixon and Hubert H. Humphrey with the intention not of winning the contest, but of throwing the result to the House of Representatives to make the choice. He won several states in the Deep South, but not enough electoral votes to fulfill his intention of deadlocking the election. This has only happened twice – in 1800 and 1824.

Which highlights another electoral mess. Concurrently with arguments to form a third major political party are the righteous demands to abolish the Electoral College and choose presidents directly by the voters.

Among the reasons are that the Electoral College focuses too much attention on swing states. It is also a system where a rural area can have more weight than a heavily populated area, i.e., the California (pop. 39.5 million)/Wyoming (pop. 577,737) analogy.

What’s more, there is ample opportunity for mischief. There have been 157 faithless electors since the Electoral College was created in 1787. Trump tried to encourage the practice to tilt the 2020 election to him even though he lost by 7 million popular votes. Five presidents have lost the popular vote but won the office in the electoral college. An additional fraction of the votes in three swing states would have handed Trump an Electoral College victory to a second term.

And add to the mix the current clash between the two major political parties over voting rights – Democrats in Congress who are trying protect and expand the rights of voters, and Republicans in state capitals across the country who are attempting to suppress voters’ rights, especially in Georgia, where President Biden defeated Trump and Democrats won two runoff elections for the U.S. Senate.

The Supreme Court appears supine on the issue of voter restrictions, inclined to allow existing regressive laws to stand in states where they exist despite lower court rulings that they are unlawful.

H.R. 1, the birth-child of Maryland Rep. John Sarbanes (D), is a massive restructuring of the political system that addresses those issues and more. It would expand voting rights and overhaul campaign finance as well as redistricting laws. The House has passed H.R. 1. Its future in the Senate may be a toe tag.

Consider, too, the chaos in foreign nations where there are more than two major political parties and governance is possible only through the formation of coalitions, conditional and fragile. Admittedly their systems of elections and governance differ from America’s to certain degrees, but the principles of democratic self-governance exist nonetheless and rely on coalitions, cooperation and compromise.

Consider the following examples as models if the number of parties in America expands:

In Italy, for example, there are six major political parties and 29 minor parties. Prime ministers and governing coalitions collapse regularly and long-term stable government is a rare occurrence.

Israel is another example of unstable coalition government. In Israel there are five major parties and 34 minor parties. Nearly 200 different political parties have run in Israeli elections since the nation was established in 1948.

In Germany, there are six major political parties and five factions it is necessary to do business with to effectively establish a functioning government.

And in the United Kingdom, there are two major parties – Conservative and Labour – and three minor parties that can be meddlesome in establishing stable governments.

America is a big country of 50 states, 330 million people, regional interests, dozens of unfamiliar languages, and people of every color, creed, gender, interest, ailment and pronoun.

In Congress, we already have a number of caucuses that represent specific interests but barely speak to each other.

If two parties in America can’t get along, how could three or more co-exist?


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Frank DeFilippo: A Second Chance for a Third Party?