By Dave O'Brien
Policy Director

February 29, 2024

Americans want more options, but our election system pushes us toward a duopoly.

According to a recent Gallup poll, “Sixty-three percent of U.S. adults currently agree with the statement that the Republican and Democratic parties do ‘such a poor job’ of representing the American people that “a third major party is needed.” Even though a record number of Americans feel unrepresented by either major political party, and there are many other parties that compete with the two major parties across the country, the vast majority of elected offices are held by Democrats or Republicans. So what gives? Are voters lying when they say they want an alternative or is something else going on?

A record 49% of Americans see themselves as politically independent—the same percentage as those identifying with the two major parties put together.

It’s a complicated question involving lots of factors, but some big institutional features of American elections can help explain how we got here.

Why does America have a two-party system?

One reason is how we vote. In the mid-20th century, a political scientist named Maurice Duverger observed that there was a relationship between how a place elected candidates and how many competitive political parties it had. According to Duverger's Law, elections that use plurality voting (which he called “the simple majority, single ballot system,” also known as “first-past-the-post”) tend to result in two-party systems. When elections only select a single winner by seeing who gets the most votes in a single round election, they will usually end up as contests between two candidates. Any other candidates will be seen as spoilers as voters, even voters who might otherwise support them, decide to support one of the most competitive candidates instead of voting for someone they consider unlikely to win. With notable exceptions like Alaska and Maine, which use Ranked Choice Voting, and a few states that hold runoff elections, most states use plurality voting to elect state and federal candidates.

Another obstacle for third parties is most states make it difficult for them to even get onto the ballot. Around the turn of the 20th century, states began to print official government-issued ballots for elections. Before, political parties and campaigns would provide voters with ballots printed with the names of their candidates. While government-printed ballots reduced opportunities for voter intimidation and fraud, politicians soon realized that this allowed them to control who appeared on the ballot. The result was laws that made it easy for candidates from parties that were already big and well-established to get onto the ballot but much harder for smaller parties and new parties that were just starting out. Now, smaller parties often have to spend significant time and resources gathering signatures, maintaining a certain number of registered members, or winning some percentage of the vote for a major office like president or governor in an election they’re unlikely to win.

America is unusual among democracies in the degree to which partisan actors are a part of the election process, with gerrymandering being an obvious example.

There’s also the degree to which the two major parties have been institutionalized within our political system. America is unusual among democracies in the degree to which partisan actors are a part of the election process, with gerrymandering being an obvious example. When Democrats are in charge of the process, they draw districts that favor Democrats, and when Republicans are in charge, they draw districts that favor Republicans. In many states, the official in charge of overseeing elections is an elected partisan politician. Other places use boards or commissions, which are often required by law to be limited to members of the two major parties. In either case, the perspectives of other parties are rarely considered when making important decisions. 

What can we do about the two-party system?

There are a lot of reasons why the two major parties dominate our politics. No single reform will change that on its own, but some fixes would remove barriers to competition and help level the playing field for third parties and their supporters.

Changing how we vote could give smaller parties a better chance to win elections and would empower voters to support candidates from outside the two major parties. Ranked Choice Voting (RCV), for example, can fix the spoiler problem that sometimes deters voters from supporting smaller parties. By ranking candidates, voters make a third-party candidate their first choice while still ranking a major-party candidate later on as a backup.

Proportional representation voting methods, which can elect a party’s candidates in proportion to their share of the overall votes, would be even better for smaller parties. Under plurality voting, for example, a party could get a third of the votes in a legislative election and still not win any seats. Under a form of proportional representation, that party would win about a third of the seats up for election. When New York City used the proportional form of RCV in local elections in the 1930s and 40s, the number of parties that regularly won representation on the City Council went from two to five, six, or even more, depending on the election.

Lowering the burden states put on new and smaller parties to receive legal recognition and appear on the ballot would let those parties focus on growing and competing in winnable elections instead of reaching arbitrary goals. The growing interest in reforms like Top Four and Final Five Voting creates an opportunity to rethink how the law treats smaller parties and upend the restrictive ballot access process. Similarly, reconsidering the architecture of our elections, from the redistricting process to who oversees election administration, could allow those who aren’t part of the two major parties to participate on a more level playing field.

Voters in most other democracies–and even in other periods throughout American history–have far more choices in the voting booth and more variety among their elected officials than Americans do now.

Can we get to a multi-party system?

It doesn't have to be this way; a two-party duopoly isn’t inevitable. Voters in most other democracies–and even in other periods throughout American history–have far more choices in the voting booth and more variety among their elected officials than Americans do now. Our current system is the result of many interrelated factors and political decisions that, intentionally or not, created a situation where most voters end up supporting one of two parties, even when they would rather not. But laws can change, and the rules and institutions that created and entrenched the two-party duopoly can be replaced by those that give voters more choices and better representation.

Changing how we vote and making elections more competitive can open up new opportunities for third parties and empower us to vote for candidates who truly reflect our values. RepresentUs is fighting for better representation. Will you join us?

RepresentUs is America’s leading anti-corruption organization working city-by-city, state-by-state to fix our broken political system.