Since announcing his run for president in April, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has drawn criticism from the very party his family once dominated. His anti-vaccine stances, claims Democrats are censoring him and the praise he has garnered from right-wing pundits such as Steve Bannon and Tucker Carlson have earned him the title of "Conservatives’ favorite Democrat." Perhaps it’s no surprise that House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries referred to Mr. Kennedy as a “living, breathing, false flag operation.” Kennedy has ignored the majority of the Democrat base, opting instead to play to conservatives with appearances on Joe Rogan’s podcast and double down on his belief in COVID-19 conspiracy theories.
Kennedy’s run as a Democrat in the primary has sparked fear among Democrats. Someone with Kennedy’s name and fame could draw votes away from President Joe Biden, whose popularity has already been souring.
Still, Kennedy’s multifarious support has not deterred him from running as a Democrat — until now. On Oct. 9, Kennedy announced he would run as an independent.
Concerned by the threat of a 2020 rematch, Democrats have been critical of other third parties that could serve as an obstacle for President Biden this election. The Democratic National Committee urged local leaders to condemn No Labels, a centrist bipartisan group seeking to back a moderate candidate for president.
Republicans fear Kennedy’s switch to an independent candidacy could impede former President Donald Trump’s 2024 campaign, as he draws support from some on the right. These predicaments reveal the headache that third-party campaigns pose for both Democrats and Republicans. But this unease raises an important question: Should we be discouraging Americans from voting for a third-party candidate that truly aligns with their beliefs?
From a pragmatic standpoint, Kennedy’s siphoning votes away from either candidate is a legitimate possibility. The infamously contested 2000 presidential election proved that while a third-party candidate may not have a viable chance of winning the presidency, they can spoil someone else’s win. Others argue that voting for a third-party candidate is a pointless endeavor, as they don’t have a real chance of winning. Yet, to encourage Americans to grit their teeth and vote for the lesser of two evils points to an exigent issue within the American political system: Our current two-party system is stifling political diversity.
Currently, the U.S. has more than 54 political parties, just 37 of which have produced presidential candidates. Even though two parties cannot possibly encompass all ideologies, Democrats and Republicans have dominated our elections. This is a result of the bureaucratic restraints in place that squash the success of third-party campaigns.
For starters, due to campaign finance policies, third-party candidates are often left to fundraise for themselves without any government support. This can pose a major deterrent to a candidate lacking adequate financial backing from their base. Additionally, third-party candidates often have to petition to even appear on a state’s ballot, which for Ralph Nader in the 2004 election, meant that he would have had to acquire a whopping 1.5 million signatures from each state.
Arguably the most significant barrier to the success of a third-party candidate is America’s approach to voting. The winner-takes-all system we use is inadequate in representing minority opinions, leading to the two-party monopoly which currently dominates our elections. Adopting a more modern and democratic approach, such as ranked-choice voting, would alleviate the intensity of the hyper-partisan state we find ourselves in.
Ranked-choice voting lets voters rank candidates in order of preference rather than voting for just one candidate, negating the fear of hurting their top choice’s prospects. RCV is used in local jurisdictions across 14 states, and three states — Maine, Alaska and Hawaii — use RCV in federal elections. RCV is also commonly used in countries that have thriving multi-party systems, such as New Zealand, Australia and Ireland.
Third-party candidates aren’t a threat to American democracy, but our suppression of them is. Considering that Americans are disgruntled by the prospective nominees the two major parties have to offer, perhaps it’s time to reevaluate the perceived threat we see in third-party candidates and open the door to more political voices in our elections.