Riding the Green ticket to elected office

November 12, 2009

Last week, I  became a constable in my Connecticut hometown, representing the Green Party. I ran for constable, a government position requiring me to deliver court summonses, to highlight the significance of third parties. The United States is unique from other well-established democracies in that its political system is characterized by the relative absence of third parties. The dialogue in Congress, and consequently the dialogue portrayed in the media, is primarily between two enormous entities: Democrats and Republicans.

We’ve been told that the Democrats are the party of the left, and the Republicans are the party of the right—yet a closer, more nuanced observation reveals that there are more similarities than differences between the two. The sort of debate that energizes and powers a truly democratic society does not occur on fundamental issues that the Democrats have continually deemed “off limits”—such as whether the United States has the right to intervene unilaterally across the world to protect its interests, or issues like cutting the military budget, single-payer universal healthcare, cracking down on corporate welfare, and serious labor reform.

Because The Green Party does not hesitate to address the issues and highlight the dangers of corporate influence that permeate Democratic and Republican agendas alike, I started working for them a few years ago. The Green platform, in short, is based on social justice and environmentalism. It works towards the goal of peaceful community self-sufficiency in a country increasingly dominated by corporate influence. In my home state of Connecticut, the Green Party does have a small but stable support base—we are, after all, the home state of Ralph Nader. After working with the Greens on the Cliff Thornton for Governor Campaign in 2006, and Richard Duffee’s 4th district congressional campaign in 2008, the Fairfield County Greens apparently trusted me enough to ask me to run for constable in my town of New Canaan. A week ago, I was elected with 749 votes, good enough for fourth place out of six candidates.

Almost immediately I thought of the impossibility of serving as constable in Connecticut while I went to college elsewhere. Fortunately, the position of constable—effectively a symbolic office, as outlined in the State Constitution—doesn’t actually require that I serve court summonses or live in the state. But because the position is symbolic, it’s a great opportunity to show New Canaan, a fairly conservative town, that third parties exist. It also gives residents the ability to vote Green in a town better known  as a source of inspiration for the Stepford Wives, for its small minority population of less than five percent, and its ostentatious mini-mansions.

Before I degrade my constituency too much, I must say that I’m proud of my town for electing Green Party officials. And I must value this small victory, because the disappointing reality is that the Green Party has had an extremely limited amount of success in both Connecticut and the nation as a whole. Richard Duffee—the bearded, eccentric and incredibly opinionated former lawyer, professor and self-employed poet for whom I campaigned for Congress—ended up with an embarrassing 1,373 votes in the congressional race, a number notably less than those for Michael Carrano, the borderline-delusional Libertarian candidate who espoused a classical Greek Sophist philosophy and consequently decided not to campaign at all.

The lack of success for third parties is due to the fact that quite simply, the entire electoral and political system is stacked against them. The Electoral College is a winner take-all system, in which the margin of victory has no bearing whatsoever on representation.  In such a plurality voting system, runners-up do not get representation. Therefore, third parties need to focus an immense number of resources in order to actually elect a candidate.

Perhaps even more obstructive to third party success is the repressive ballot access laws which vary from state to state. In this case, the complicity of the Democrats and Republicans is astonishing—whether the outsiders are Greens, Libertarians or independents, the two major parties have a longstanding agreement to combat the possibility of having more than two parties compete for a seat. Third parties are often obligated to launch tedious petition campaigns to obtain a certain amount of signatures before qualifying for ballot access. Many times, the signature total is virtually impossible to reach.

But if I didn’t have hope that this situation could change, then I wouldn’t have run for constable in the first place. The United States has a rich tradition of third parties as the vanguard for change, from the Populists to Progressives and Socialists. The uphill battle is well summarized by the journalist I.F. Stone: “In order for somebody to win an important, major fight 100 years hence, a lot of other people have got to be willing–for the sheer fun and joy of it–to go right ahead and fight, knowing you’re going to lose. You mustn’t feel like a martyr. You’ve got to enjoy it.”

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Marnie Glickman

This is great news. Congratulations. Reading your essay made me proud to be a Georgetown alum. Marnie Glickman CAS 92.

Mike Feinstein

Congratulations on your victory.

You may appreciate this opinion piece about some of the same electoral reform issues you raise. It was published in Green Pages, newspaper of the Green Party of the United States

Exploding the Myth of the ‘Two-Party System’