This week, Kanye West, who endorsed Donald Trump in 2016, but didn’t vote, confirmed his support of the president. He took pictures in a (Trump-signed) MAGA hat, and even tweeted support for conservative political pundit Candace Owens and Scott Adams, creator of the Dilbert comic who’s perhaps less well known for his MAGA sympathies. But while much of black Twitter indulged in witty “sunken place” memes and speculation about whether Kanye’s politics would have a negative effect on the quality of his upcoming album (let’s hope for the best), another Chicago-based artist, Chance the Rapper, tweeted what appeared to be a gesture of support: “Black people don’t have to be democrats.”
Chance’s tweet drew pushback from fans and others who read it as an endorsement of Trump’s policies. After all: there are only two parties to choose from in the United States. If black people choose not to identify as Democrats, what else could we be?
Chance answered this question in a clarifying tweet less than two hours later: “Next President gon be independent,” he wrote.
Socialists and supporters of Bernie Sanders responded enthusiastically. A reply tweet reading “BERNIE SANDERS 2020” garnered 2.6 thousand likes, and Rosa Clemente – the 2008 Green Party candidate – encouraged Chance to learn more about Green party candidates like herself and Cynthia McKinney, her African American running mate.
Perhaps the positive response is unsurprising given that 42 percent of Americans identify as independent, up from 39 percent in 2016. Notably, the uptick mirrors a general dissatisfaction with government reflected in polls – a trend which, as it turns out, is negatively correlated with a quickly growing economy. Arguably, Sen. Sanders’ focus on economic concerns, as well as a willingness to criticize the “Establishment,” was a significant part of his unexpected success in the 2016 Democratic primary.
Yet, despite widespread disaffection with the two-party system, Chance’s tweet was still highly controversial due to the impracticality of mounting a third-party challenge. One commenter racked up 2.4 thousand likes by tweeting “Electoral college” followed by the popular white-man-blinking-incredulously gif, implying that besting the major parties is next to impossible in the current system. Another chastised Chance for dismissing the Democratic Party without acknowledging the significant work that building a substitute party would entail. Sally Albright, twitter-famous for her zealous advocacy for the Hillary Clinton campaign, wrote that anyone who doesn’t vote for Democrats “prefer[s] Republicans,” and that “[a]nyone who isn’t trying to stop them is complicit in their agenda.” She added, “Typical Berner.”
There is, however, a significant group of unreservedly enthusiastic supporters for a third party challenge. To those disillusioned by both sides, it’s clear that the long-term benefits of breaking up the two-party system outweigh the short-term harms of a spoiler election: Even if a third-party were to split the vote, the loss would force the Democratic Party to pay attention to the needs of all its voters.
While this argument can, at times, bear the mark of privilege, its critics tend to forget the visceral human consequences of “incrementalism” – the gradual change traditionally advocated by establishment figures – even as they rightly fear the potential havoc of conservative leadership. The “fierce urgency of now” that motivates third-party advocates, those undeterred by the possibility of spoilers, is not merely about privilege – it’s also the call of the institutionally ignored.
Clarifying his earlier tweets, Chance The Rapper, who made headlines last year for donating $2 million to Chicago public schools, explained today that his frustration with Democrats stemmed from the party’s lack of investment in his hometown: “My statement about black folk not having to be democrats (though true) was a deflection from the real conversation and stemmed from a personal issue with the fact that Chicago has had generations of democratic officials with no investment or regard for black schools, neighborhood[s] or black lives.” After apologizing for the timing of his remarks, he went on to argue that “[w]e have to talk honestly about what is happening and has been happening in this country and we have to challenge those who are responsible, as well as those who are giving them a pass.”
Luckily, there’s a solution to this two-party bind that does not require the political gamble associated with a third-party challenge: Ranked Choice Voting.
Ranked-Choice Voting, or instant-runoff voting, is a method by which voters rank three or more candidates in order of preference. The bottom ranked candidates are eliminated in successive rounds, and the voters’ second, or third, or fourth choice is applied to the candidates still in the race until one candidate secures upwards of 50 percent of the vote. For example, if candidates A, B, and C are all competing for elected office, and candidates A and B are ideologically aligned, B can’t be said to be a spoiler. If candidate B comes in third place, candidate A would get all her votes, assuming that “B” voters listed “A” as their second choice. Thus, if the initial votes came in as 30 percent for A, 25 percent for B and 45 percent for C, candidate A would likely win. In a bare majority system, on the other hand, candidate C – whose positions align with a minority of voters – would win.
The system is neither novel nor hypothetical. Democracies around the world use Ranked Choice Voting, including Australia, India and Ireland. Domestically, municipal elections in San Francisco, Oakland, Minneapolis and Saint Paul all use RCV. And earlier this year, Maine’s secretary of state confirmed that RCV would be employed in the June primaries, despite the Legislature’s attempts to block the voter-driven ballot initiative that brought RCV to the state.
It’s perhaps unsurprising that members of the two major parties have been largely silent on Ranked Choice Voting – after all, they share an interest in preserving power and securing their ability to “capture” the populace along narrow political allegiances.
Historically marginalized groups, like black Americans, know this trap better than most. As Farai Chideya at FiveThirtyEight observed shortly before the 2016 presidential election, black voters’ loyalty to the left often results in their issues being ignored. Referencing a theory advanced by Princeton political scientist Paul Frymer in his 1999 book Uneasy Alliances: Race and Party Competition in America, Chideya explained that less ideological voters are courted more actively, just as swing states attract a disproportionate amount of campaign spending. Because black voters vote Democrat around 90 percent of the time, black voters get less attention. Third party voting, then, is not only a route to disrupting the political duopoly, it is also a pathway toward ending the constructive disenfranchisement experienced by Black Americans.
Charles Barkley may only be right as often as a broken clock, but when he observes, like Chance, that “Black people have been voting for Democrats their whole life, and they’re still poor,” it does have a ring of truth. It’s clear that the Republican platform, which works to curtail social programs for the poor, while it hands out tax breaks to the rich, is no solution. But because voters are trapped in a two party duopoly, Republicans are able to construe critiques of the Democratic Party as endorsements of their own. Chance’s statement that all black people don’t have to be Democrats is only controversial in so far as the only viable alternative is belonging to a party that would serve “black interests,” however defined, even less.
Curtailing corporate spending and gerrymandering are goals which are rightly prioritized by the left, but to fully secure the franchise for all Americans, it’s crucial that we be able to make electoral decisions free from the constraints of the spoiler effect, especially given the lesser-of-two-evilism that resulted in Trump’s election. Admonishing third-party candidates as “spoilers” without addressing the systemic changes necessary to avoid spoiled elections is a hypocritical half-measure that only stigmatizes the free exercise of the franchise. After all, the problem isn’t the third-party candidate: it’s the two-party system. I say let’s give it a Chance.