News Local/State

Illinois Issues: Third Parties - If Not Now, When?


Rachel Otwell/NPR Illinois

Over half the U.S. population believes there’s a need for a third major party, according to a 2017 Gallup poll that found 61 percent of those surveyed supported the idea — up 20 percentage points from those polled in 2003.

“I think the poll itself speaks to the fact more Americans than ever are saying they want a third party. But it's not easy to have a third party in America,” said Steven Nemerovski.

He’s a longtime lobbyist and professor, and was special counsel to Lee Daniels, who served for two years in the mid-90s as Republican Illinois House Speaker, the only interruption in Democrat Michael Madigan’s reign.

Now, Nemerovski is an avowed third party proponent, an author and television producer for his show,  “None of the Above.”

“One of the problems from my perspective is that the third parties we have now, for instance, the Libertarian Party, they are so bad at being political parties that they mask how you would actually go about being a party,” he said.

Bad or not, the Libertarian Party did get candidates for all statewide offices on the ballot this year. Their pick for secretary of state won an endorsement from a Springfield newspaper.

Kash Jackson, the party’s nominee for governor, says it wasn’t easy getting there.

“Ballot access is atrocious. For third parties, we needed to acquire over 25,000 valid signatures, which in effect meant we needed close to 50,000 to survive a petition challenge that we anticipated,” said Jackson, echoing a common complaint about the confines limiting entry for third party candidates.

Jackson’s campaign promises to end political corruption and offer more freedom from government regulations.

Meanwhile, Republican state Sen. Sam McCann is a fourth candidate for governor. Having taken on the identity of the Conservative Party, he promises to be a crusader for conservative social issues, something he says Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner has failed to do.

“The Republican Party was just starting to get its sea legs when he came along. And now this deep division is going to make the Republican Party even weaker,” said McCann.

While the election is still days away, one thing is clear: it is unlikely a third party candidate will win the top job. Still, an NPR Illinois & Illinois Issues survey found that 15 percent of respondents said they were voting for someone other than the Republican or Democratic candidates and 27 percent didn’t give a preference or refused to answer.

Third party candidates have continued to struggle to get their message out, particularly in this year’s battle for governor that’s set to be the most expensive statewide race in the nation’s history.

Jackson and McCann weren’t included in all the debates. For example, they did not meet polling requirements set for the League of Women Voters’ debate.

Nemerovski says the media has dropped the ball when it comes to helping create an equal playing field.

“The reality is the media does not give enough attention to these candidates,” said Nemerovski. “And they don't let these third parties [get out their] message, they don't give them a voice. I think it's a travesty.”

Still, in recent Illinois history, one third party candidate did make some headway with his own bid for governor - Rich Whitney

The Green Party member and Carbondale resident this year is vying for a seat on the Jackson County Board. Whitney’s failed bids for governor were in 2006 and 2010.

In his first run he got 10 percent of the vote, losing to Democrat Rod Blagojevich and Republican runner-up Judy Baar Topinka.

“To be candid, a lot of it was protest voting against those two. You know, there were some counties in Illinois where I actually received more votes from usual Republican voters, as opposed to [Democratic] voters,” said Whitney.

Whitney’s showing was a victory of sorts — he got the Greens recognized as a major party in Illinois, which made it easier to field candidates for every office in the following two elections. That ended with the Tea Party wave in 2010, when his vote total was less than 3 percent.

Whitney says the quest for third party approval has always felt like a Catch-22. People don’t want to vote for something they don’t see as viable. But, as Whitney said, “In order for it to become viable, people need to vote for it. And we're in a long struggle. We have had some successes in getting people elected to the local level.”

Whitney said now he’s focused on building blocks — winning a smaller election in hopes of earning public trust and increasing support. “Look, we're not running to be a spoiler. We never do. We're running to win. And hey, if we can win at the county level, we can win at the [state legislative] level,” he said.

Third party advocate Steven Nemerovski says Illinois voters are tired of having just two choices.

He challenges spoiler arguments, and said the whole point is to disrupt business as usual. He’s hopeful the time is near that third parties will gain more power. He thinks the Millennial generation will be the ones to heed his call.

“They're looking for a voice, and they are just coming of age and they are going to wake up to the fact that my generation — I'm in my mid 60s — has burdened them with pension plans and all kinds of problems that they're going to wake up to. And I think that generation is going to say, ‘Wait a minute, these parties are not giving us the answer as to where we're going to go.’”

Still, Nemerovski said he’s not endorsing either of this year’s third party candidates for governor.