Third parties don’t confuse British voters

One of the benefits of a parliamentary democracy like the United Kingdom is the general openness to multiple parties. British voters don’t seem to get confused by more than two parties on the ballot. On the contrary, a third party helps expose corruption and malfeasance, as Dr. Mike Munger notes in this op ed published in the Herald Sun.

Sunshine, British elections and an example for U.S.

In politics, sunlight is the best disinfectant. But our political system is specifically designed to protect the two state-sponsored parties from media scrutiny and voter examination. Incumbent politicians find debates inconvenient; they hate to answer questions about why their corrupt practices in government can’t be changed.

They realize that best defense is to ensure such questions never get asked in the first place.

And so our legislature ignores sunshine rules. Committee meetings and bill markup are conducted in secrecy suitable for international strategic arms negotiations.

The best our media can do is to investigate after the fact, so outgoing administrations send a parade of officials to state and federal prison. But no one can learn much about current official malfeasance because of the darkness and secrecy.

Recent events in Great Britain suggest a solution: Include third parties in debates. It’s simple and costs very little.

But the government was overturned, and the bright light of public attention was focused on the ruling Labour party, simply by including the Liberal Democrats in the electoral debates. The positions presented by LD standard-bearer Nick Clegg reminded Labour supporters of how badly their party had abandoned them and, after the April 15 debate in particular, the LD was clearly outpolling Labour.

Ultimately, voters made their choices, and the Liberal Democrats were consigned to third party status again. But the LDs played a key role in the formation of the new government and they have injected a new energy and lots of sunlight into a process that had been infected with the dark, arrogant corruption of power.

How did Labour and the Conservatives, the two major parties, make up ground between the first and second debates? By adopting a number of the ideas put forward by the LDs, so that by losing the LDs won.

That’s how third parties can act as a disinfectant: by raising questions that the major parties have to answer. Otherwise, there is no way to get the attention of the ruling elite.

One could object to my claim, of course. Won’t voters be confused, presented with dozens of choices?

Won’t allowing myriad small parties to participate make the whole electoral system incoherent?

Maybe. But we are far from having to worry about that. North Carolina is one of the three most restricted ballot states in America.

To qualify, a prospective party would have to collect well over 100,000 signatures, at a cost of nearly a quarter million dollars. There can’t be a flood of new parties, because our laws keep them out.

And that’s a red herring anyway.

Have you seen the cereal aisle at Kroger’s? Yet people still figure out which cereal to buy.

Claiming that voters would be confused by having real choices is an insult to voters. When you hear that the state-sponsored parties want to protect you from being confused, you know that all they really want is to protect the kind of corrupt government that depends on darkness and deception.

Furthermore, the very nature of the process ensures that any party clearing the ballot access hurdle has established significant, broad support among voters.

That doesn’t mean that the new party will win. But it does mean that, like the Liberal Democrats in England, voters want to hear what the new guy has to say, and they may demand action.

Right now, the Libertarian Party has qualified for the ballot in 2010 and 2012.

Another party, North Carolina First, is struggling up the Mount Everest size mountain of ballot access requirements, and might well qualify, if not for 2010 then for 2012.

But will the candidates for those parties be allowed to participate in debates? That is, in spite of doing everything the state requires to be able to be heard by the voters, will the state-sponsored parties once again be able to coerce the media into accepting a restricted menu of candidates?

Sadly, the answer may be “yes.”

When running for governor in 2008, I was prevented from participating in the early debates, the ones that mattered the most, the ones that Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats used to change things.

Our CBS affiliates and ABC affiliates both scheduled televised debates between the Democrat and Republican candidates only.

I was given no chance to have an impact on the questions raised, or the ideas that would be raised for public consideration.

Neither of the two media giants, both of which supposedly serve the public, gave any explanation for why they were opposed to sunlight.

We should look to the example of the Liberal Democrats in England. Because the third party was allowed to participate in the debates, there was a peaceful revolution, the kind we call an “election.”

I doubt the new government will bring in a new golden age, but at least England used a little of the power of the sun to clean up a tired and corrupt system.

Dr. Michael Munger is chairman of  the Duke University political science department and was the 2008 Libertarian candidate for North Carolina governor.