When Americans cast their votes tomorrow, the marquee decision will be who serves as the American President for the next four years. The choices, though, will go far beyond President Obama vs. Governor Romney. On this important day on the democratic calendar, there will be a plethora of decisions for voters make. For starters, despite the depiction of head-to-head competition between our well-known Democratic and Republican party candidates, there are several other folks running for President.
In our federal system, each State is responsible for determining the criteria candidates must satisfy to appear on the ballot. The Democratic and Republican parties’ have the largest memberships registered to vote, and their Presidential candidates consistently qualify to appear on the ballots in all 50 States. Several other political parties will be represented across the country, although not all of those qualify to appear on the ballots in every State.
This year Oklahoma will be the only State with just the two major-party Presidential candidates on the ballot. With 17, Colorado wins the prize for having the most Presidential candidates on the ballot. Florida’s Presidential ballot will also be crowded, with 12 options.
The range of candidates and the parties represented on the ballot in various States embody the great diversity of opinion within the United States. Our political spectrum is certainly not a narrow one. Even comedian and former sitcom star Roseanne Barr, representing the Peace & Freedom Party, will appear on the ballot in three States — Colorado, Florida, and my home State of California (where six candidates will appear).
On October 23rd, the nonprofit Free and Equal Elections Foundation organized a debate hosted by Larry King in which four Presidential candidates other than President Obama and Governor Romney participated. Each of those four other candidates is listed on a sufficient number of State ballots to theoretically win the election.
They are Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson (the former Governor of New Mexico) who will be listed on ballots in 48 states, Green Party candidate Jill Stein (a physician and environmental-health advocate) who has qualified to appear on the ballot in 37 states, Constitution Party candidate Virgil Goode (a former U.S. Representative from Virginia) in 21 states, and former Justice Party candidate Rocky Anderson (former Mayor of Salt Lake City).
The Free and Equal Elections Foundation held an online run-off poll after the first debate and then scheduled a second debate (for November 5th) between the two top voter getters, the Libertarian Party’s Gary Johnson and the Green Party’s Jill Stein.
Despite lower profiles, the presence of third-party candidates in the 2012 Presidential race continues a long and august American political tradition. Some third parties, of course, have been more influential than others. For example, former President Theodore Roosevelt’s Progressive Party (nicknamed the Bull Moose Party) made a serious run during the 1912 election. Many historians believe that the Bull Moose vote split the support of incumbent President William Taft, thereby enabling Woodrow Wilson’s victory.
Eighty years later, businessman Ross Perot’s independent candidacy in the 1992 election won him nearly 19% of the popular vote, which some analysts believe helped deliver the White House to candidate Bill Clinton by drawing crucial conservative votes away from incumbent President George H.W. Bush. Eight years after that, some analysts believe that Green Party candidate Ralph Nader facilitated George W. Bush’s Electoral College victory over Al Gore because his 3% of the popular vote was concentrated in certain battleground States.
Because the Presidential / Vice Presidential race is the only one on which all Americans vote, it naturally gets the lion’s share of press coverage in the U.S. and virtually all of the press coverage overseas. It is important to remember, though, that the Presidency is not the only elected office on the ballot. Our national Government has a second elected branch (Congress) with two chambers (House and Senate). Our federal system also comprises layers of elected State, county, and city governments, and there are elected school, health, neighborhood, and other boards in various locations as well.
What does that mean in terms of numbers? Well, across our 50 States, all 435 seats in the House of Representatives will be up for reelection, along with 33 of the 100 seats in the Senate. At the State level, 11 governorships will be contested this year, as will more than 80% of the country’s 7,382 State legisture seats. I have not found a reliable total number of mayor, city council, and board seats on the ballot, but they number in the thousands. Fortunately, though, voters don’t have to wade through all of that because you can only vote in your home district, which tends to limit the number of races in front of you to a dozen or so.
In 24 States, including my home State of California, voters will also face choices on which laws to enact, through the ballot initiative process which allows citizens to put recommended laws and/or constitutional amendments up for State-wide public vote by collecting a certain number of signatures in the State. While not providing for voter initiatives, three additional States have processes by which the legislature can put legislative measures on the ballot for public vote. As I recall, this year my ballot contained 11 pieces of proposed State-wide legislation on which I was asked to vote yes or no, as well as city and county measures.
I know that there are vociferous critics of the initiative process, and wading through the proposed laws takes a bit of time. As always, there are compelling arguments on both sides. Frankly, though, I never feel more a democrat (small “d”) than when I’m voting directly to tax (or not) myself, to remove (or not) traffic-ticket cameras from our city’s intersections, to establish (or not) a stem cell research institute, to raise (or not) the minimum wage, or to strengthen (or weaken) environmental standards.
Finally, as we enter the 48-hour countdown to tallying all those votes, it’s worth noting that Election 2012 has already begun with many States initiating early voting. I have been told that early voting in New Zealand elections is a relatively small phenomenon, but in the United States this year it is projected that a record 35-40% of all U.S. voters will cast their ballots before the polls open on November 6th. That represents tens of millions of voters. Some analysts predict that in key battleground States (such as Florida, Iowa and North Carolina) the early voting rates will even be higher.
Voting began in some States as early as September and is now well underway in all 50 States through mail-in or in-person processes. As usual, I voted a month ago on the day that I received my mail ballot from Los Angeles. (I always vote, but I think that I have only stepped into a voting booth once in my life.) Another one of the millions of early voters this year was President Obama, who on October 25th officially became the first sitting President to vote early in-person when he cast his own ballot in his hometown of Chicago.
So, stay tuned. The 2012 wave of American electoral activity will crest tomorrow. Most eyes will be on the Presidential race, but the great populist machinery of democracy will hum, whirr, and occasionally stutter in thousands of other races, on hundreds of ballot initiatives, and in more than a million polling booths across the continent, to the Arctic circle, and at the heart of the Pacific Ocean.
The American election is a true celebration of vibrant pluralist democracy, not only in the United States but elsewhere. Whatever one’s view of various and sundry details, and regardless of the outcomes, tomorrow is a great exercise in self-governmance, of exercise of free will, of We the People taking responsibility. As H.G. Wells said, “The greatest task of democracy, its ritual and feast, is choice.”
Of course, many of the races have been hard-fought, positions have been forcefully and not always politely expressed, and messaging has flooded our field of vision for months. That exuberance sometimes frightens or annoys. It sometimes creates confusion and gridlock. But, at root, it is what makes our system resilient, flexible, and real. Bill Moyers perhaps said it best: “Although our interests as citizens vary, each one is an artery to the heart that pumps life through the body politic, and each is important to the health of democracy.”