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From the 12th Amendment of the Constitution (emphasis mine)

The person having the greatest Number of votes for President, shall be the President, if such number be a majority of the whole number of Electors appointed; and if no person have such majority, then from the persons having the highest numbers not exceeding three on the list of those voted for as President, the House of Representatives shall choose immediately, by ballot, the President. But in choosing the President, the votes shall be taken by states, the representation from each state having one vote; a quorum for this purpose shall consist of a member or members from two-thirds of the states, and a majority of all the states shall be necessary to a choice. And if the House of Representatives shall not choose a President whenever the right of choice shall devolve upon them, before the fourth day of March next following, then the Vice-President shall act as President, as in the case of the death or other constitutional disability of the President.

It is relatively well known that if no Presidential candidate receives a majority of electoral votes, the House of Representatives elects the President.

I have always looked at this as a barrier to a multi-party Presidential election, because with 3 or more strong candidates, the odds of receiving a majority of electoral votes drops dramatically. Even in an election with a clear "winner" (say 45%-30%-25%), the election still goes to the House.

If the entire House was elected every four years, this would not be an issue, as the the party of the "winner" in the hypothetical election above would likely also win the greatest number of seats in the House and would be elected there. But because this isn't the case (and possibly due to gerrymandering), there is no guarantee that the "winner" will make any significant gains and be elected in the House, and the electorate and/or strong third party candidates themselves choose not to take that chance.

Is this a common idea regarding US Presidential elections, or is there a logical mistake I'm making somewhere but just don't see it?

5 Answers 5

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If the entire House was elected every four years,

The entire House is elected every four years. In fact, the entire House is up for election every two years. It's in the Senate that only a third is up in any particular election.

Even in an election with a clear "winner" (say 45%-30%-25%), the election still goes to the House.

First, I wouldn't describe that as an election with a clear winner. 55% of the vote is against the clear leader. I also find this confusing in that we usually don't talk about percentages of electoral votes. But the majority requirement only applies to electoral votes. Note that in three presidential elections in a row from 1992 to 2000, no candidate won a majority of the popular vote. The electoral majority requirement was met each time.

Second, I actually think that this makes things easier for third parties. Consider the current election. If you are a Never Clinton Republican, you can vote for Gary Johnson more comfortably. If Johnson wins enough states to keep either candidate from getting a majority, then the House can still prevent Clinton from winning. It reduces the spoiler effect of the House rather than increasing it.

The last time that the election actually went to the House, it wasn't the leader who won. He was regarded as a dangerous demagogue and the other candidates banded together to defeat him. So there was no disadvantage from the third and fourth candidates running. They still were able to prevent the leading vote getter from winning with a minority of the vote.

The larger problem with third party candidates is that they prevent a preferred but inferior candidate from winning in a state. For example, if all the Ralph Nader votes in Florida in 2000 had gone to Al Gore instead, Gore would have won Florida and the election. Even though Nader had no electoral votes. This is why many propose switching to a ranked method like Instant-Runoff voting (IRV) or one of the Condorcet-compliant methods. They better capture secondary preferences.

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  • 1
    The Founders thought when the constitution was drafted that it would be hard for anyone to get a majority, did not foresee the emergence of a two party system, and expected most Presidential elections to be resolved in the House.
    – ohwilleke
    Dec 2, 2020 at 5:24
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    @ohwilleke - That's interesting. Can you point me to any specific reading about this, if you have a favorite? If not, I'm perfectly capable of using a search engine. Dec 2, 2020 at 16:11
  • 1
    @PoloHoleSet See, e.g. this link and the sources referenced therein. medium.com/electoral-university-press/…
    – ohwilleke
    Dec 3, 2020 at 0:12
  • @ohwilleke - Thank you! Dec 3, 2020 at 15:12
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The most significant obstacle to viability of a third party candidate comes principally from the "winner take all" system for selection of the electors that has been chosen in almost every state. This is not inherently part of the electoral college as set forth in the Constitution, but is not forbidden either. Since a third party candidate can gain no electoral votes without a plurality in any given state, third party movements have had little success in building a continuous voice and establishing a long term presence. They have tended to have (and bear in mind the above obstacles also present a barrier to statistically valid data here) a relatively small following or to be single candidate oriented (like Nader & Perot).

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The country is full of elections, the presidential happens only every four years. These other elections have more effect: almost all of them are plurality elections, wherin each voter votes for the one ideal candidate of this choice. There is a problem with this, as Brythan suggests. One of the clearest examples is the South-Korean election of the two Kims. One year both father Kim and son Kim were presidential candidates, along with someone whose name I forget. Father and son were really not different, both suggested roughly the same ends, and so on. They greatly differed from the third. The voters who wanted Kim, the majority, indifferently voted for one Kim or the other, and the third candidate won. Father apologized for entering the race.
In a two-party system, through the mechanism of nomination and drawing of the like-minded to one party or the other this is almost always excluded. The theorists claim that plurality voting makes the two-party system.
I find ranking and instant-runoff too complicated, and prefer preference voting, wherin the voter votes for every candidate that suits him, and none of the rest. There is a generalization of this, range voting, finite or infinite: In finite the voter evaluates each candidate along a finite range, say 0 through 6, in the end all are added up and the candidate with highest total takes the office. In infinite the range is 0 through 1 with all points in between, otherwise the same as finite.

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    This is not, as presented, a plausible interpretation. In Korea, 21.5% of the entire population has the surname "Kim". 54% of the population shares one of five most common surnames. The top 20 surnames cover 81% of the population. The top 40 surnames cover 94% of the population. People with the same surname run against each other routinely in Korean politics. See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/…
    – ohwilleke
    Dec 2, 2020 at 5:21
  • The point is not that they were called Kim (I have read about the great commonness of the surname); the point is that father & son had the same platform, and were therefore indistinct to the voters. If a voter could vote for both Kims, indifferent which one actually won, that would better reflect that situation. Dec 4, 2020 at 3:46
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I would like to argue that it’s not the Electoral College but rather the first past the post system used in the House and Senate; combined with the fact that House districts are very large (by population) when compared with other countries.

The United Kingdom provides a nice example of how third parties can thrive even under a FPTP system, albeit different parties to a different degree. If we substract the 18 Northern Irish constituencies (because Northern Ireland has a different party system and most parties from Great Britain do not stand for Northern Irish seats), the 632 seats are held by six parties:

  • the Conservative Party (Tories) holds 364
  • the Labour Party (including Labour Co-op) holds 200
  • the Scottish National Party holds 47
  • the Liberal Democratic Party holds 11
  • Plaid Cymru holds 3
  • the Green Party holds 1

In addition, the Speaker’s seat is non-partisan and five members currently sit as independents after they had their whip withdrawn for various reasons (breakdown: Labour 2, Plaid Cymru, SNP and Conservatives 1 each).

Most of the time the office of the Prime Minister and thus the designation of Her Majesty’s Government changes hands between the Conservative and Labour parties only with the other one forming Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition. Thus, when it comes to distributing power there are really only two parties that tend to have it.

Nonetheless, the other four parties exist and win seats (further parties exist and stood but did not win seats in the 2019 election). Two of these are regional parties with a strong regional following who have only contested and won seats in their respective regions: Plaid Cymru in Wales and the SNP in Scotland. The two others are nationwide parties that contest seats (or would contest seats) all over the country.

Among the reasons why the nationwide minor parties can be successful and establish themselves is the size of UK parliamentary constituencies. On average, one MP represented 73,181 voters in 2019 while one US Representative represented almost ten times as many constituents (709,760 according to the 2010 census). This means that the entry bar to contest a seat is far lower, especially if the seat is an urban one where travel times become neglegible: far less voters need to be convinced, far less information material is needed and thus the costs can be much lower. This is probably why the Lib Dems continue to exist even after their extensive losses in 2015 and why the Green Party can prevail and hold the Brighton Pavillion seat. Nobody voting for the Lib Dems or the Green Party will be delusional and assume that this party will form a government any time soon; they do, however, perform valuable opposition work, broaden the voices heard in the Commons and might represent the interests of their voters better than a Labour or Conservative candidate if the voters’ preferences don’t neatly align with these larger parties.

It is worth pointing out that it is possible for third parties to win seats in US elections too; one of the most notable times this happened was in the 1912 election, when Theodore Roosevelt formed the Progressive (Bull Moose) Party and himself ran for a third term as President. The party won 10 seats in 1912, and held onto at least one seat while gained new seats in 1914 although their gains could not offset their losses. However, the party depended heavily on their leader Roosevelt and collapsed after he declined to run on their ticket for President in 1916.

It is worth pointing out that Roosevelt outperformed the Republican candidate and incumbent President Taft both in popular vote (27 % over 23 %) and Electoral College votes (88 over 8). Nonetheless, the 1912 election went to the Democratic candidate, Wilson; some argue this was due to vote splitting while others argue that Wilson would have won even if the Republican and Progressive votes were summed together.

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  • People don't expect the Lib Dems to form the whole government, but 2010 proves that they can be part of government. Their losses in 2015 can be attributed to the compromises they made in coalition
    – Caleth
    Dec 2, 2020 at 15:00
  • FPTP discourages geographically dispersed political parties (the Greens and the Liberal Democrats are wildly underrepresented relative to the number of voters cast for those parties), while it isn't a barrier to geographically compact nationalist parties with moderate policies otherwise (who over perform relative to votes cast for them). 567 seats are to major parties, 12 seats are minor national parties, and 80 are nationalist/ geographically localized parties (including N. Ireland). Likewise, Canada's Parti Quebecqoi is a nationalist party. National third parties got just 2% of the seats.
    – ohwilleke
    Dec 3, 2020 at 0:20
  • Constituencies could be much larger and produce the same results so long as they were limited to one region with autonomy aspiratins.
    – ohwilleke
    Dec 3, 2020 at 0:21
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In addition to the winner-take-all per-state electoral college rules (that @Brythan mentions), the per-state "get on the ballot" rules discourage the creation of a viable third party. In each state, the two major parties have a clear path to get their candidate on the ballot. However, in each state, the rules are different. Those rules are a formidable barrier to getting a "third party" candidate on the ballot in enough states to be viable.

There's also a chicken and egg problem. In order to create a third party, you really need both congressional representation and a viable Presidential ticket. Without a good presidential candidate, it's hard to rally the troops around a new party. Without congressional representation, it's very hard for a viable third party candidate to win (because if the candidate is truly viable, then the election will likely be settled in the house (and the VP election in the senate, where it takes three election cycles to get a full compliment of members).

There were big changes in 1860, but that was a special year - it was when the country nearly broke apart permanently and when the festering issue of slavery really came to a head.

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  • There is also the significant point that if any issue became important enough to elect third party candidates in more than token numbers one of the existing major parties would likely adjust their stance to subsume that issue. Sep 24, 2020 at 22:34
  • This is not a significant factor. Most states have at least a dozen third-party candidates on the Presidential ballot. If even Kanye West can get on several state's ballots with a last minute second thought candidacy, that isn't the real barrier. Viable third-party candidates have regularly made it onto almost every state's ballot.
    – ohwilleke
    Dec 2, 2020 at 5:16
  • Kanye was able to get onto the ballot in 5 states. Ross Perot was able to get on the ballot on every state in 1992, but that required a very concerted petition effort (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ross_Perot_1992_presidential_campaign). He had more trouble in 1996. His success was likely the result of John Anderson's efforts in 1980, where he ended up suing to get access in 10 of the states he ended up on the ballot of (ballot-access.org/2011/05/30/…).
    – Flydog57
    Dec 2, 2020 at 17:20
  • Ralph Nader is another example. He was able to get on the ballot in 22 states in 1996, and having learned more, in 43 states in 2000. He also illustrates some of the issues with third party candidates. He got 97k votes in Floriday in 2000; Gore lost that state by 537 votes (and, as a result, the Iraq war eventually happened). en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ralph_Nader_2000_presidential_campaign
    – Flydog57
    Dec 2, 2020 at 17:42

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