If you're among the growing number of voters who are disenchanted with both major parties, you may be considering a move to a third party. You're not alone. Some minor parties have seen significant growth in recent years; Oregon's Independent Party likely holds the record, with nearly 24,000 registered members since its inception a mere 18 months ago.
But before you make the leap to any third party, here are some questions you need to think about:
How important is winning to you? This is one of the most important considerations and one that few pundits, commentators, journalists and political observers understand. Do minor party candidates want to win? Of course. Do they expect to? In most cases, no. What they want is automatic ballot access, and that means garnering a certain percentage of the vote. The more votes cast for their candidate, the more likely they won't have to endure the time-consuming petitioning process in the next election. They're building for the future, and they're accustomed to losing elections. A win for them, under the current political structure, is getting enough votes to secure their position on the ballot next time around.
Are you clear on where you stand on the issues? Do you have a well defined political philosophy? Minor parties are not big tents. Most have well thought-out positions and tightly worded platforms, and people who join these parties do so because they agree with those positions and platforms. If you disagree with any significant point, don't join thinking that your input may change their position. It won't. There's not a lot of diversity of opinion in most third parties, but you know where they stand, which is not always the case with the major parties.
Are you willing to get involved? Volunteers are the lifeblood of minor parties. Of course, you can still sit on the sidelines; no one will make you get involved. But the party will never grow and never achieve or retain the much-coveted ballot access without its volunteers.
Are you only interested in presidential races? If so, you'll be missing out on an opportunity to make a difference in your area. Minor parties are especially effective in legislative districts where one party essentially owns a congressional seat. Sometimes the opposing major party simply concedes and chooses to spend its resources in a district where they stand a chance at winning. Third parties come in and fill the void, showing incumbents that they shouldn't be so sure of themselves.
Can you take the heat? Be ready, because you'll get plenty of criticism. You'll be told you're wasting your vote and your candidate is a spoiler. The obvious retort is that a vote for a major-party candidate is wasted and goes to a different kind of spoiler, one who is ruining what could be a perfectly fine political system. The more mature answer would be that your candidate gave you someone you could vote for in good conscience, or whatever your honest answer is. You just need to be prepared to give it, over and over again.
If you're still feeling positive about third parties after all that, it may not be easy finding a party that satisfies both your political and your spiritual inclinations. But you have hundreds to choose from. Politics1 can fill you in on many of them. Here's a rundown of the three largest; each party likely has more than the number listed, since some states don't allow voters the option of registering with a specific minor party:
Constitution: 367,000 registered voters; expects to have ballot access in all 50 states by November. Baptist pastor Chuck Baldwin of Pensacola, FL, is its presidential candidate; his running-mate is Tennessee lawyer Darrell Castle. The pro-life party is in favor of states' rights, limited government and gun ownership, and against illegal immigration and open borders, UN interference in U.S. policy, undeclared unconstitutional wars ("such as Iraq and Afghanistan"), and free trade and international trade agreements such as NAFTA & GATT.
Green: 289,000 registered voters; the number of states with ballot access in 2008 is still undetermined. Presidential candidate is former Democratic Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney of Georgia; Bronx community organizer and hip-hop activist Rosa Clemente is her running-mate. The party is in favor of abortion rights, same-sex marriage rights, amnesty for illegal immigrants, universal healthcare, reduction in deficit spending, gun control, drug legalization and fair trade, and opposes the war in Iraq, capital punishment and school prayer.
Libertarian: 236,000 registered voters; has ballot access in 33 states so far. Former Republican Congressman Bob Barr of Georgia is the party's presidential nominee; Nevada businessman Wayne Allyn Root is his running-mate. Beyond the "fiscally conservative, socially liberal" tag associated with it, the party is in favor of smaller government, lower taxes and freedom from governmental interference (from its Web site: "Think of us as a group of people with a 'live and let live' mentality and a balanced checkbook.")
If, after investigating all the minor parties that America has to offer, you still haven't found one to your liking, you can always start your own. And you can find out how here.
Marcia Ford is the author of We the Purple: Faith, Politics and the Independent Voter.