Electoral system imposes formidable barriers to minor parties and drives politics to the center, says election law expert

“Minor political parties’ inability to gain traction in the United States does not reflect natural facets of our national character,” says Gregory P. Magarian, election law expert and professor of law at Washington University in St. Louis, home of the 2008 vice presidential debate.

Greg Magarian, professor of law, discusses how elections tend to focus on the “center” and crowd out the bolder ideas from outside parties.

“Rather, our legal system imposes formidable barriers to minor parties’ electoral viability. The use of plurality voting (the candidate with the most votes gets the only prize) and single-member districts in congressional and most state legislative elections drives voters to coalesce around only two electoral options, marginalizing any candidate who lacks a major-party brand. A better, fairer structure of political competition would give minor parties a legislative platform and a chance to supplant one of the major parties.”

Magarian is available to discuss general election law and electoral system issues. His current comments on the 2008 campaigns follow:

What are some of the legal hurdles that minor parties face?

“First Amendment constraints on campaign finance regulation, under which government may substantially restrict the amounts of political contributions but not of campaign expenditures, ensures that only the Democrats and Republicans, with their broad bases of financial support, can compete effectively,” Magarian says.

“In addition, federal regulators do not require broadcasters to provide equal time to minor party candidates.”

How has the current electoral system shaped politics in the U.S.?

Gregory Magarian
Gregory Magarian

“The legal entrenchment of the two major parties has solidified a centrist political order,” he says. “Proponents of bipartisanship insist that our political culture lacks moderation — the polarization of Democratic and Republican elites has forced the ‘sensible center’ from its rightful position of political dominance. Two-party systems, though, inevitably drive politics toward the center. When two candidates compete, each needing to secure fifty percent plus one of the vote, both candidates are allowed by the system, then, to take their base voters for granted and focus on the decisive, median voter.

Do minor parties have any role in the current system?

“Denied the keys to government, minor parties can take intellectual and rhetorical chances,” Magarian says.

“They can operate as policy laboratories, developing proposals that may attract few initial adherents but eventually penetrate the core of political consciousness. The Progressive Party exemplified this function at the turn of the last century, agitating for minimum wages, graduated income taxation and numerous other social, economic and political reforms that eventually became cornerstones of our law.”

Editor’s note: Magarian is available for phone, e-mail and broadcast interviews. Washington University has VYVX and ISDN lines available free for news interviews.