"Who runs for office in America?" It's a simple question with a complicated answer. New York happens to have a richness of political diversity reaching back to the earliest days of American party politics. The future has never looked more promising for the (so-called) lesser of two evils. Why? In record numbers, Americans are growing dissatisfied with their extant system of government, the dominant two parties that have reigned in American politics for the past hundred years, and the growing dysfunction of their government.

Battle for the ballots: inside the offices of U.S. third parties. Image 1.

Simon Chetrit

Author & photographer


A full 65% of Americans are dissatisfied with the system of government and how it works. A record high majority of 58% say a third party is needed. For the first time since 1992, neither major party has hit a 40% favorability rating with the public. 43% refuse to publicly identify with either main party. In our most recent presidential election, a majority of Americans, over 94 million people, simply stayed home. The political parties we do have are increasingly mismatched and at odds with one another, leading to never-ending gridlock, increased partisan rancor, loneliness, and a deeper alienation of politics from polite society. We can barely stand the idea of our children marrying someone from the opposing political party anymore. Just as in business, less choice results in less competition and increased collusion, to the great detriment of the consumer. Or in this case, the voter.

↓ New York State Conservative Party headquarters

Battle for the ballots: inside the offices of U.S. third parties. Image 2.

If all that’s true, and Americans are indeed clamoring for new voices and viewpoints, why aren’t they getting them? Well, they are and they aren’t. The alternatives are there, but there are an enormous number of arbitrary roadblocks in their way. Some of these are by design, and some of these are by accident. It’s important to note, also, that many third parties are not only running to advance a candidate, but to draw attention to under-served issues via whatever publicity they receive.

In fact, some of the earliest political parties were anti-slavery abolitionist parties which predated mainstream anti-slavery sentiment by at least 10 years. The Free Soil Party and Liberty Party, both New York-based third parties, are some of the earliest organized examples of abolitionist sentiment in American politics. They have not won many electoral votes, but their existence pushed the issue of abolition to prominence well before it might have otherwise.

The very first third party in American history was a single issue party brought about as a result of historic hostility towards and suspicion of a single group: Freemasons. Another New York-born party, the Anti-Masonic Party capitalized on the crest of anti-secret society sentiment in the late 1820s, and channeled it into an influential political movement. Despite only existing for a decade, they made numerous contributions to American political culture. They were, for example, the first political party to have a party convention in which they named their candidate and laid out their platform. More notably, 100 years before the Red Scare, they demonstrated that fear of a particular group or ideology can be a powerful tool for winning elections. A noteworthy contribution indeed.

A selection of third parties currently active in the United States

America First Party

( Founded 2002 )

American Conservative Party

( Founded 2008 )

American Freedom Party

( Founded 2010 )

American Populist Party

( Founded 2009 )

America's Party

( Founded 2008 )

Christian Liberty Party

( Founded 1996 )

Citizens Party of the United States

( Founded 2004 )

Communist Party USA

( Founded 1919 )

Freedom Socialist Party

( Founded 1966 )

Independent American Party

( Founded 1998 )

Battle for the ballots: inside the offices of U.S. third parties. Image 3.

The very notion of America as a “two party” system is, and has always been, a farce. The two dominant parties today were originally cobbled together from, on the Republican side, Whigs, Free Soilers and Northern Democrats, and on the Democratic side, Know-Nothings (yes, really, that’s their name), Federalists, and a strong base of support in the South. There was even a Democratic-Republican Party for a while. According to Census Bureau figures, almost 80% of the eligible population went to the polls from 1876 to 1892.

So, where did all this richness of ideological diversity go? Why do we have so few options and such a limited debate over issues today?

They’re still here, but due to limited public interest (despite the public’s claims otherwise) and institutional barriers, they have been squashed into insignificance.

 ↑ New York State Sapient Party Headquarters


The intent of these laws is clear

How many people were on the Presidential ballot in 2012? Two? Three? No, at least fifteen or more. But with their patchwork access to the ballot, barring from mainstream debates, and deliberately limited exposure to the public, how were any of us supposed to know they were there?

One of the more unusual aspects is how your choices for president vary depending on the state you live in. Each state sets their own laws regarding who has access to the ballot, and in order to avoid circuses like the 2003 California recall election, some ballot restrictions are fair and sensible. The reality of these laws, however, is that, by design, they solidify two-party rule and bar even serious third party contenders from having a presence in the race.

In four states (Maryland, South Carolina, Tennessee and Wyoming), a minor party candidate for governor has not won 5 percent or more of the vote since the 19th century. Six states don’t even allow write-in candidates. Even Democrats and Republicans have a hard time making the ballot sometimes, resulting in undemocratic and completely noncompetitive elections with only one candidate for purely bureaucratic reasons. About 33 percent of all state legislative district elections in 2012 had only one candidate per seat in the race. Redistricting guarantees safe seats. The challenge to get on the ballot for third parties can range from the absurd to the confusing to the Sisyphean. Having to get hundreds of thousands of signatures in odd numbered years, in the coldest months, in a matter of weeks, having to pay tens of thousands of dollars, risk arrest or fines of up to $100,000, the list goes on, and is arbitrarily decided by partisan employees of the state in question.

Given that restrictions to the ballot are a relatively new feature of American elections, and that third parties have played historically important roles, reforming ballot access at the Federal level to ensure free and fair access for all parties should be a much higher priority.

The more time, money and energy that third party candidates and organizations spend fighting to simply get onto the ballot, into the election, and into the debates, the less they will have to engage with the public and disseminate their ideas. Often, the ballot access status of a given third party is tied up in their performance during Presidential election years, and so every moment is precious, every vote is precious, every dollar is precious.

A selection of third parties currently active in the United States (Continued)

Justice Party

( Founded 2011 )

Modern Whig Party

( Founded 2008 )

National Socialist Movement

( Founded 1974 )

Objectivist Party

( Founded 2008 )

Party for Socialism and Liberation

( Founded 2004 )

Peace and Freedom Party

( Founded 1967 )

Pirate Party

( Founded 2006 )

Prohibition Party

( Founded 1869 )

Reform Party of
the United States of America

( Founded 1995 )

Socialist Action

( Founded 1983 )

Socialist Alternative

( Founded 1986 )

Socialist Equality Party

( Founded 1966 )

Socialist Party USA

( Founded 1973 )

Socialist Workers Party

( Founded 1938 )

United States Marijuana Party

( Founded 2002 )

United States Pacifist Party

( Founded 1983 )

Unity Party of America

( Founded 2004 )

Workers World Party

( Founded 1959)

Battle for the ballots: inside the offices of U.S. third parties. Image 4.

Libertarian Party of NYS (founded: 1971)

Beliefs / Platform: Libertarians believe in the absolute minimum amount of government possible. In effect, they believe that less government means more freedom. They oppose the war on drugs, lobby for a total withdrawal of the government from education to be replaced with a free market alternative, strongly support the 2nd Amendment and push for completely privatized health care. In general, Libertarians view the free market as a greater provider of efficient services and institutions than government, and view government forces to intervene in markets as hampering, creating greater inefficiencies. Membership is contingent upon signing a document stating "I certify that I do not believe in or advocate the initiation of force as a means of achieving political or social goals."

 Battle for the ballots: inside the offices of U.S. third parties. Image 5.

↑ The offices of the New York State
Libertarian Party

Ballot Access: Have not yet made the New York ballot. The closest was in the 2010 Gubernatorial election when Warren Redlich earned 48,386 votes, within 1,500-1,700 votes of the necessary 50,000 threshold to obtain ballot access.

Battle for the ballots: inside the offices of U.S. third parties. Image 6.

Green Party of NYS (founded 1992)

Beliefs / Platform: The Green Party supports the creation of jobs for the unemployed in public works, a state-funded program for full employment, a national $15/hour minimum wage indexed to productivity, a living income for all who cannot or should not work and single payer healthcare with no deductibles and full coverage. The would like fully funded public schools with no high-stakes testing or Common Core structure as well as free tuition at public universities. They want to fully fund the MTA and the Staten Island West Shore and North Shore Rail Lines, enforce 100% clean energy including an immediate shutdown of the Indian Point nuclear reactor and a phase out of all New York nuclear power plants. Additionally, they want to raise taxes on the wealthy, legalize/tax marijuana and reform the criminal justice system. The "ten key values" which guide the Green Party are as follows: Grassroots democracy, social justice and equal opportunity, ecological wisdom, non-violence, decentralization, community-based economics, gender equality, respect for diversity, personal and global responsibility, future focus and sustainability.

Battle for the ballots: inside the offices of U.S. third parties. Image 7.

↑ James Lane of the New York State
Green Party

Ballot Access: First obtained by "Grandpa" Al Lewis of The Munsters fame, and re-obtained by Howie Hawkins in 2010 and 2014, the Green Party has consistently attained the 50,000 votes necessary for ballot access in New York State, and has been a tireless champion of ballot access for all third parties across the nation. The Green, Libertarian and Constitution Parties have filed joint lawsuits to challenge the discriminatory nature of ballot access laws, collaborating across ideological and party lines to achieve progress on the issue.

Battle for the ballots: inside the offices of U.S. third parties. Image 8.

Working Families Party of NYS (founded 1998)

Beliefs / Platform: Well paying jobs, affordable housing, accessible health care, better public schools, and more investment in public services. Legislative priorities include passage of the New York DREAM Act, criminal justice reform, paid sick leave, single payer health care and campaign finance reform. Their website describes their beliefs as follows:

"The wealthy few are making money by doing harm to working families, whether they’re outsourcing jobs, privatizing schools or poisoning the environment.

Working Families is a growing progressive political organization that fights for an economy that works for all of us, and a democracy in which every voice matters. We believe that our children’s life chances must not be determined at birth, and that America must be a nation that allows all its people to thrive."

Battle for the ballots: inside the offices of U.S. third parties. Image 9.

↑ The offices of the New York State
Working Families party

Ballot Access: The Working Families Party has consistently made the ballot since 1998. They are a large beneficiary of New York's "fusion voting" where one candidate can be nominated by multiple political parties. In effect, this empowers the smaller parties to have a larger impact on elections and have a louder voice. In the 1998 gubernatorial election, the WFP cross-endorsed the Democratic candidate Peter Vallone and met the 50,000 vote threshold (on their own line) that is necessary to make the ballot. Since then, the WFP has fought for fusion voting to be enacted in other states, ultimately succeeding in Oregon in 2010. Since then, the WFP has gone on to win elections for various City Council positions, and even has a seat in Brooklyn's 35th City Council, the first seat to go to a third party in 30 years. 

Battle for the ballots: inside the offices of U.S. third parties. Image 10.

Conservative Party of NYS (founded 1962)

Beliefs / Platform: Elimination of various taxes, including the estate tax, state income tax, reduction of the corporate income tax and reduction of the personal income tax. Broadly, they seek less government and state spending, support the 2nd Amendment, oppose all forms of amnesty for illegal immigrants, oppose same-sex marriage, support making English the official language, tort reform, and that our participation in all multilateral institutions (the IMF, NATO, UN, World Court) should be re-evaluated. A firm believer in American exceptionalism. Their website states: "The mission of the Conservative Party is to restore into practice the 'entire' design of our nation’s founding."

Battle for the ballots: inside the offices of U.S. third parties. Image 11.

↑ The offices of the New York State
Conservative Party

Ballot Access: Has consistently had access to the ballot. They are the fourth-ranked party in membership terms after the Republicans, Democrats and Libertarian party.

Battle for the ballots: inside the offices of U.S. third parties. Image 12.

Sapient Party (founded 2012)

Beliefs/Platform: Sapient is Latin for "wisdom." The Sapient Party of New York believes strongly in ending the culture of political gift-giving in Washington as a means of influencing votes; no more trips, gifts, free meals and a blanket ban on elected officials from taking money from foreign governments or foreign interests. They support medical marijuana contingent upon further positive research from medical experts as well as open primaries, gay marriage, and teaching children about environmental causes and issues from a very young age. They are also very passionate about strict term limits.

Battle for the ballots: inside the offices of U.S. third parties. Image 13.

↑ The offices of the New York State
Sapient Party

Ballot Access: Bobby K. Kalotee, is the former vice chairman of the Republican Party of Nassau County, former national chairman of the All American Political Party, ex-vice chairman of New York state’s Independence Party Committee, and currently serves as the chairman of the Sapient Party of New York. After experiencing several disappointing experiences with mainstream parties, including the Independence Party, Kalotee thought he could achieve his political goals by forming his own, grassroots Sapient Party. Bobby ran for governor in 2014 along with his running mate, Steve Cohn, and got a respectable 4,963 votes, well short of the threshold for ballot access, but a statement nonetheless. The Sapient Party plans to endorse candidates at the local level beginning in 2015.

Photography: Simon Chetrit