For Illinoisans who can't so much as glance at a license plate without being reminded of the state's favorite son, it's difficult to think of Abraham Lincoln and his Republican Party as anything but mainstream. But in 1854, the year the party was founded, it was nothing like the well-funded powerhouse we're familiar with today. At that time, the fledgling movement was in a battle with other political groups to become, in addition to the Democrats, one of the two pre-eminent political parties in America. The "George W. Bush for President" bumper stickers displayed currently on vehicles across the nation provide ample evidence that these early Republicans were successful.
In fact, Mark Voss-Hubbard, assistant professor of history at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, says the Republican Party is the only truly successful third-party movement in American history. Lincoln's Illinois politicking played an important role in that success. In 1856, Lincoln helped elect the state's first Republican governor, former Democrat William Henry Bissell, because he thought he would need his state's support in the next presidential election.
But in 2000, the Land of Lincoln has been accused of hostility toward third parties.
Of course, the limited success of third parties throughout the nation hasn't stopped outsider groups from vying for votes. More than 35 political parties nominated candidates for this year's presidential election — and that doesn't count the dozens of independents who claimed to be running for the nation's highest office. Some of these movements, such as the Libertarian Party, were familiar, but the list included more obscure groups, such as the Anti-Hypocrisy Party, the Looking Back Party and the United Fascist Union.
Most independents and third-party groups posed little threat to Democratic and Republican candidates. Few even appeared on the ballot because of rules restricting access.
Sharing the ballot in Illinois with Democrat Al Gore and Republican Bush were Libertarian Harry Browne, the Green Party's Ralph Nader, who survived a challenge, John Hagelin, who ran as a Reform Party candidate in this state and as a candidate of the Natural Law Party in most others, and Pat Buchanan, who ran as an independent here and on the Reform Party ticket elsewhere.
In this state, third-party candidates are required to collect 25,000 petition signatures before they can appear on the ballot, but only 3,000 to 5,000 signatures are needed by Democratic and Republican candidates. The rationale for the difference is that the major parties received at least 5 percent of the vote in the previous election. The State Board of Elections requires third parties to collect the additional signatures to demonstrate they can achieve a minimum level of popular support. At the same time, though, third parties have until June of the election year to file their signatures, while established parties must file in January before the spring primary.
Critics argue it's no accident Republicans constitute the only third party to make it into the mainstream. Representatives of the major parties write the rules for ballot access
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through the state legislatures. But Kent Redfield, a professor of political studies at the University of Illinois at Springfield, argues such gatekeeping is necessary. "If there were no barriers, we would have 46 candidates for president." The problem, he says, is in deciding "what's a reasonable task, in terms of proving support, vs. what's an undue barrier."
In Nader's case, a dispute arose over whether he had enough valid signatures. Initially, Nader had fewer than 23,000, though that is five times the number required of major party candidates. After getting a reprieve on the deadline, he managed to round up more than 25,000 valid signatures. Last month, the elections board voted to allow him on the November ballot.
Some believe the real agenda behind the challenge was the effort to prevent Nader from siphoning votes from a major party on Election Day, most likely the Democrats.
Indeed, this isn't the first time the Illinois Democratic Party has worried about third-party challenges. But ironically, that party fumbled famously when it failed to worry enough.
In 1986, two supporters of controversial political contender Lyndon LaRouche ran in the Illinois primary as Democrats and won. Most observers believe that was because the LaRouche backers had bland-sounding ballot names, and because Democratic Party officials didn't take the threat seriously enough early on. Whatever the reason, Mark J. Fairchild managed to win the primary race for lieutenant governor and Janice Hart was nominated for secretary of state.
State Sen. Vince Demuzio of Carlinville, who was elected state party chairman shortly after that primary debacle, says his party's gubernatorial candidate Adlai Stevenson III, who refused to be associated with the LaRouche campaign, was forced to run as a third-party candidate. He created the Illinois Solidarity Party and ran under that banner in the general election. Demuzio says the switch confused voters further and caused Stevenson to lose to Republican incumbent Gov. James R. Thompson.
The debate over third parties is not likely to end anytime soon, according to Redfield. But he argues qualification requirements are not the major reason third parties have little success at the polls. During the 20th century, he says, "third-party movements gained traction because they had ideas that resonated with voters, then failed because the major parties adopted those ideas."
Or, in the case of Lincoln's Republicans, the third party became the major party.
Until that situation arises again, Illinois can continue to celebrate its role in sending the only candidate of a successful third party to the oval office.
Heather Nickel, a former public affairs reporting intern at Illinois Issues, lives in Springfield.
www.uis.edu/~ilissues Illinois Issues November 2000 17