OP-ED | We Treat Third Parties Like Pariahs, And Our Democracy Suffers For It
It looks like former State Rep. Jonathan Pelto will be left off of the ballot for governor this fall, which will be a relief to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s re-election team. It’s also a sad commentary on the way we treat minor parties in this state, and how the two-party monopoly squeezes out much-needed competition.
I’ll admit I wasn’t a fan of Pelto’s candidacy; I felt his important points tended to get lost in a sea of hyperbole and vitriol. He had every right to run, though, and he seemed poised to appeal to a constituency of teachers and union members that had felt slighted during the Malloy years. I fully expected Pelto would gather the signatures he needed, and maybe pick up the endorsement of some of the unions who have been furious with Gov. Malloy.
None of that happened. Unions who felt betrayed by the governor during the fight over state employee concessions in 2011 and again over teacher tenure and education reform in 2012 are now lining up behind his re-election campaign, leaving Pelto high and dry.
Union leaders actively shut Pelto out, and some went as far as attacking his record. SEIU 1199NE President David Pickus said that Pelto, who has been a consistent pro-union voice, “. . . had no support for unions in 2001 when he was strategizing against Connecticut workers and aligning himself with disgraced former governor John Rowland.”
It didn’t end there. The Connecticut Education Association, which on the issues should have been one of Pelto’s biggest allies, actually blocked him from collecting signatures outside their convention. They went on to endorse the governor’s re-election campaign.
Union members may agree more with Pelto or another minor party candidate, but the organizations don’t feel nearly strong or confident enough to actually break their alliance with the Democratic Party. Unions know that if they want to remain relevant at all, they have to align themselves with one of the two major parties — and one of those utterly despises them. So what choice do they have?
The upshot is that, of this writing, Pelto believed he had failed to gather the signatures he needed to qualify for the ballot. Part of this is his campaign’s fault, but fearful, weak unions and a system that makes ballot access for minor party candidates obnoxious and difficult didn’t help.
But it’s not just organized labor that’s feeling pressure to stay with the two party monopoly — the Connecticut Citizens’ Defense League, a pro-Second Amendment interest group, endorsed Tom Foley today over independent Joe Visconti. This is puzzling: Foley’s views on gun control have been waffling and ethereal, while Visconti has made his entire campaign about restoring gun rights. Visconti, who did manage to qualify for November’s ballot, also said he’d received some “vitriolic” Facebook posts from CCDL board members, and was facing pushback from other organizations that favored Foley.
Even the two bigger “minor” parties in the state, the Working Families Party and the Independent Party, have largely made headlines in recent years not by winning elections on their own but instead by cross-endorsing Democrats or Republicans, respectively.
The problem here is that we’re stuck in a two-party rut, and we have no good way of getting out of it. This is our system, and it’s (mostly) worked for us since the Civil War, but there are a lot of very significant drawbacks causing problems.
First, this system actually works against democracy, because a lot of voices by necessity don’t get heard. Unions and progressives may not like where Connecticut’s Democratic leaders are going, but they have no real option other than running primary after primary and trying to drag the big party to the left. The same is true of groups on the right.
Another effect of having a two-party monopoly is polarization — the two big parties know that one or the other will win, so they can throw all their energy into blocking and winning at all costs instead of trying to build coalitions.
Voting reform might have an effect on this. California’s “top two” primary system is a good start, and so are a lot of alternative voting schemes that let people choose a second choice. Making ballot access easier and more straightforward would help, as well, as would more consistent inclusion of minor party candidates in debates and public campaign financing.
Our democracy needs to evolve to ensure everyone’s voice is heard — and make sure that the sort of election we’re facing, where the only real choices are between bad and worse, never happens again.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.
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