Third-party hopefuls, write-in candidates face steep climb in Delaware

Voting machines in Delaware now have a write in option. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

DOVER — Delawareans who don’t like either of the two major political parties may not have too many options in this election.

There are multiple third-party candidates running for president, governor, U.S. Senate and U.S. House, but outside of those, only eight candidates not registered as Democrats or Republicans will be on the ballot Tuesday. That includes just three third-party hopefuls seeking state legislative seats.

It’s a far cry from 2012, when 29 candidates not affiliated with the Democratic or Republican parties sought elected office, including 19 Libertarians.

Over the past four election cycles, the high point for a third-party candidate in a race with both a Democrat and a Republican is the 3.8% garnered by Alexander Pires in 2012. Mr. Pires, a lawyer and businessman running on the Independent Party of Delaware’s ticket, reported spending almost $414,000 on his campaign for the U.S. Senate — about $28.63 per vote.

Precious few others have even broken 2%.

Among races with only one major-party hopeful, no one received a greater share of the vote from 2012 to 2018 than the Independent Party of Delaware’s Michael Tedesco, who collected 25.7% in his bid for the state Senate six years ago. Even with just a single Democrat or Republican, third-party candidates almost always fail to break 15% here and often fall short of 10%.

Among presidential candidates, Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson garnered 3.4% of Delaware’s popular vote in 2016, the most since Ross Perot pulled in 10.6% in 1996.

Third-party candidates have major built-in disadvantages, chiefly the inherent lack of attention they receive. It’s a bit of a catch-22: They don’t get more attention because they are so unlikely to win and they’re unlikely to win in part because they’re not well-known.

In Delaware, a party must have at least .1% of the state’s total registered voters to appear on the ballot. Currently, that equates to about 712 members, a number where most minor parties here fall short.

Over the past four cycles, candidates from the Independent Party of Delaware, Libertarian Party and Green Party have sought office in the state, along with one ballot-qualified unaffiliated Delawarean.

This year, there are six hopefuls from the Independent Party of Delaware and eight Libertarians seeking statewide or county offices. Presidential nominees representing the Green and Libertarian parties will also appear on the ballot.

No Greens are running for local positions due to a combination of life circumstances such as challenges brought on by the pandemic, the fact some of the most prominent members are elderly and a desire to see younger folks take the reins.

David McCorquodale, a member of the party’s Coordinating Council, said the organization is focused on promoting ranked-choice voting, an initiative touted by some good government groups as a fairer alternative to the country’s first-past-the-post system.

“The idea is to build slowly and build a base and to eventually be able to lobby legislators about the idea,” he said.

Such an effort would do more to help the state than “symbolic” candidacies, he said, acknowledging the extreme disadvantage third parties have. Mr. McCorquodale would know — he ran for the state House in 2016 and 2014 because no one else was challenging the Republican incumbent. He received 19.2% the first time and 17.8% the next.

Electoral success is built from the ground up, he emphasized.

Mr. McCorquodale believes many people are unwilling to vote for a third party because they fear their vote could be the difference that leads to their least favorite candidate winning. As an example, he cited the 2000 presidential election, where Green nominee Ralph Nader is sometimes blamed for Democrat Al Gore’s narrow loss to Republican George W. Bush.

Don’t tell Don Ayotte about the odds of success though. Chairman of the Independent Party of Delaware, Mr. Ayotte believes the organization is “growing exponentially” and on track to become “a major power within Delaware as a political party.”

As of Oct. 1, the Independent Party of Delaware had 8,156 registered voters, making it the third-largest party in the state. (Although more than 164,000 people are registered as unaffiliated, 80% of the total number of Republican voters here, they technically don’t belong to any party.)

The Independent Party of Delaware pulled in about 900 new members in the first nine months of 2020.

“Our party is the wave of the future,” Mr. Ayotte said. “I’ve heard many people around me say that and I’ve heard people that I didn’t even know say that.”

He gives the party’s nominee for president of New Castle County Council a 95% chance of unseating the Democratic incumbent next week in a race with no GOP nominee.

No one ran on the party’s ticket in 2018 or 2016, which Mr. Ayotte said was because leadership did not find anyone qualified who wanted to run and was strongly on board with its ideals.

Mr. Ayotte, who has unsuccessfully sought positions on Sussex County Council and in the state House, believes anger at the two major parties over an ability to work together and help the American people creates an opening for the Independent Party of Delaware.

Sean Goward, chairman of the Delaware Libertarian Party, also sees opportunities for other political organizations stemming from the polarization of American politics. The party’s candidates are just regular Delawareans who feel ignored by Democrats and Republicans and are seeking to protect individual liberties, he said.

That’s a mold Mr. Goward, who ran for governor in 2016, fits. He is hopeful the nation can move past the two-party system in the near future.

“Until we win individual races, the more of a margin we can take away from the major parties, the less comfortable our representatives are going to be in their future employment,” he wrote in an email.

“We don’t want our elected officials to take for granted that once the election is over, they represent all of their constituents, not just the ones who voted for them. That’s the benefit to libertarian principles: regardless of party affiliation, our policies would benefit every individual in Delaware.”

Unlike the Democratic and Republican parties, Delaware’s third parties do not charge filing fees, which can run more than $10,000 depending on the office.

Technically, the candidates listed on the ballot aren’t the only options: Some offices have qualified write-in candidates, although none of those have ever come close to winning here.

Delaware counts all write-in votes for candidates who did not fill out the proper paperwork ahead of time together, meaning a vote for Hillary Clinton this year is treated the same as a vote for Darth Vader, which is to say they both would be thrown out.

There are 32 write-ins this year, 25 of whom are running for president. (That total counts tickets with presidential and vice presidential hopefuls together, as most write-ins seeking the White House do not have a VP.) Included in that group is musician Kanye West, who will be on the ballot itself in a few states.

Some political observers around the country have speculated Mr. West’s candidacy is either a publicity stunt or is intended to drain Black support from Democratic nominee Joe Biden.

Delawareans cast about 1,200 votes for qualified write-ins in 2018, along with another 900 that were not counted. There were approximately 3,100 write-in votes for declared candidates here in 2016, about two-thirds of which were for president. Only 840 of that total (a little more than a quarter) were for declared candidates, however.

The list of write-ins is included with absentee and vote-by-mail ballots and can be viewed at polling places as well.

Mail-in and absentee ballots contain specific spots for write-in candidates. To cast a write-in vote at the polls, an individual should click the designated button on the machine and type in the name of the candidate in question. Poll workers can provide assistance if need be.

Misspelled names are generally accepted if the intent is clear.