Reading about the election statistics in the United States I was amazed about how few votes are received by the minor parties and their candidates.

For example, Gloria La Riva received only 181 votes in a country of 300-million registered voters for the presidential elections in 1992. I suspect this only marginally exceeds the number of her friends and relatives.

I am quite sure that nothing similar could happen in most other voting cultures. If a person is registered as a presidential candidate and is on the list, they no doubt will receive at least several hundreds of thousands of votes no matter how unpopular or unknown he or she is.

This is because of the following factors:

  • Protest voting: people who do not like the major candidates may vote for somebody unknown so to signal their protest
  • Confusion: somebody confused the candidate with another public figure due to a similarity in the name
  • Solidarity: people from the same geographical area, town or the same ethnic, religious background or the same profession or the same sex may vote for an unknown candidate just due to some background similarity. People of the same neighbourhood usually are well aware of "their" candidate even if he did not receive federal media coverage.
  • Random voting: people just vote for somebody with a funny name or happy number in the list
  • Biography readers: some elderly people in many countries still retain their a habit of thoroughly reading the candidate's biography, usually listed at the voting place and if they like they can vote despite any TV advertisement
  • Just mistakes: a person wanted to vote for another candidate but mistakenly selected this one. Or a mistake during the counting.

So I wonder why these factors do not have any force in the US. To me it seems completely unrealistic and fantastic that a person included in the federal presidential list can earn so few votes.

  • 3
    Because no one in the USA knows the unknown candidates. I've never heard of Gloria La Riva.
    – Russell
    Commented Apr 18, 2012 at 9:06
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    If you are not in the two major parties you typically do not get covered in the major media and therefore less exposure. The major parties also finance commercials which is how candidates get known, as well as speaking engagements. While I am aware of many minor political candidates I have never heard of Gloria La Riva before now.
    – MichaelF
    Commented Apr 18, 2012 at 11:35
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    @MichaelF, I already addressed this issue. As I said it is completely inpossible in Russia even for a completely unknown candidate to get less than several hundreds of thousands of votes once he/she gets to the list.
    – Anixx
    Commented Apr 18, 2012 at 11:38
  • 5
    As has been said, Russia is not America. Elections are entirely different in either country. You do not realize the power and influence of the two major parties in the US and the role they play in making sure the vote gets out for their candidate. Protest votes are also not as much a part of the culture as they may be in Russia.
    – MichaelF
    Commented Apr 18, 2012 at 13:16
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    This might not be an exclusively US phenomenon. A really odd data quirk I've just found is that Aman Tuleev got a whopping 308 votes in the 1996 Russian presidential elections. Funny thing is, four years later he got over 2,000,000. Perhaps the wikipedias (English & Russian) got the 1996 figure wrong? Commented Jul 25, 2013 at 10:41

7 Answers 7


This is because the USA uses the first-past-the-post principle in all its elections rather than proportional representation like Russia uses.

The effect of first-past-the-post is that only a party with a good chance of winning the most votes can ever have a shot at any representation whatsoever. Since there mathematically can be no more than two such parties, you end up with a two-party system as your political stable-state. This is known as Duverger's Law.

In a proportional system, minor parties polling in the 20% range can still get representation, and can (and often do) have a big impact in government.

There have been occasions in US history where viable third parties arose. However, this situation never lasted more than an election cycle or two before the weakest of the three parties withered away.

Now comes the part for which this answer is accepted

Presidential elections add quite a few more wrinkles. I won't get into the exact mechanisim (it's insanely complicated), but each state has its own ballot, which means a prospective candidate has to try to get themselves on the ballot in 50 states (plus DC). Each state gets to decide how one does this. Some make it fairly easy, but some make it next to impossible if you aren't from one of the big two parties. For example, when Nader did his best in 2000 (about 3 million votes) he wasn't even on the ballot in 7 states, and that 3 million was still not enough to qualify him for access the next time around in Oklahoma.

  • 5
    Well I understand that the system prevents minor parties from getting elected. My question was why still they receive so few votes. I cannot imagine how a candidate can earn 181 votes in a 300-million country even if he is completely insane. Also I do not understand what's the purpose in participating in elections for a candidate that even cannot mobilize their own relatives and village to vote for them.
    – Anixx
    Commented Apr 18, 2012 at 14:01
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    @Anixx - Well, there is a tactical voting effect (see the Duverger's law link). Even with that though, minor party political candidates still do get more than "181" votes. The Green party got nearly 3 million votes for their presidential ticket in 2000. In 2008, Nader got 700,000 votes, the Libertarian candidate got half a million, and two other minor party candidates got more than 100,000. That's pretty impressive, considering that the US presidential elections use some other tricks to make voting for third parties even more hopeless than in other elections.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Apr 18, 2012 at 14:38
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    @Anixx - That is a question that is perhaps deserving of its own official question. The best I can do in 500 letters or less is that each of the 50 US states produces its own Presidential ballots, and thus each has its own rules for how to get yourself on that ballot. In some states it is fairly easy. However, in many (like my native Oklahoma) it is practically impossible for someone outside of the two main parties to get on. Not even Nader (who got 3 million votes in 2004) has ever made it on the ballot here.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Apr 18, 2012 at 20:56
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    @Anixx - Our presidential election process is insanely complicated. Most Americans don't even understand it very well (we're doing well if they just show up and vote). This barely scratches the surface.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Apr 18, 2012 at 22:17
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    I should point out that most elections allow write-in candidates, so somebody can get votes from somewhere they aren't on the ballot, if people know to do it. For example, in 2000 one Republican congressional candidate was famously outpolled by a ficus tree.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Oct 8, 2012 at 19:29

In the United States, most voters vote "strategically." That is, they may favor a third party candidate during the campaign, but when election day rolls around, they will vote for one of the major parties in order to not "waste" their vote.

For instance, in 2000, Ralph Nader ended up with 2% of the vote. Most of his "natural" supporters ended up voting for Al Gore, and the ones who didn't probably wish they had, because those people would much have preferred Gore over Bush.

In 1980 John Anderson was the preferred choice of 20% of the voters, but only 10% (an unusually large number) voted for him that couldn't stand either Reagan or Carter. But many of his supporters backed "the lesser of two evils."

  • 3
    My mom on the other hand told me she voted for Anderson in 1980 just because she wanted to help him hit the 10% threshold (below that, you didn't get Federal Matching funds for your campaign, and our state was very sold for another candidate anyway).
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Apr 18, 2012 at 17:52
  • @T.E.D.: Anderson was the exception that "proved" the rule. People did vote for him for the reason you suggested. But there wasn't another third party candidate until Ross Perot in 1992.
    – Tom Au
    Commented Apr 18, 2012 at 18:06
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    There are always third party candidate's but they never get the national exposure, and Ross Perot was one of the latest to be taken seriously. The last large third party that made a difference before was the Bull Moose Party in the 20th C or one of the Know Nothings from the 19th C.
    – MichaelF
    Commented Apr 19, 2012 at 19:48
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    @TomAu: Exceptions don't prove rules. Commented May 17, 2012 at 21:28
  • @KeithThompson yeah, that might easily be the most egregiously stupid saying ever conceived.
    – o0'.
    Commented Jul 20, 2015 at 19:16

I heard an interesting answer to this question a while back, and while it's probably not the whole answer (it could go hand in hand with some of the others to this question), I think it puts an interesting perspective on things. It goes something like this…

In other countries without a two-party system, a parliamentary election happens and four, five, six or more parties get voted in in significant numbers. They then get together in meeting rooms and build coalitions so they can get things done (or block the other coalition(s) from getting their things done), so what you end up with is parties that sometimes have very different goals building coalitions together.

The two parties in the US, on the other hand, are already quite broad coalitions. The Republicans includes the Religious Right who want to see more influence on policy in accordance with Christian principles, and libertarians who are skeptical of religious entanglement in government. The Republicans also include the Tea Party folks, who want to see a reduction in government spending and control, and President George W Bush, who could only be called a fiscal conservative in relative terms (relative to the current President, he was fiscally conservative, but…).

The Democrats include peaceniks skeptical of US support of Israel, as well as a majority of American Jews. The Democrats also tend to get votes from those in favor of government recognizance of gay civil unions and marriages, as well as many southern and black Baptists, who as a rule are very much against gay marriage (it's speculated that one of the reasons that California's Proposition 8, which would have made gay marriage legal in the very socially liberal state, ultimately failed was because of the strong turnout by black voters in that election, which also elected President Obama) (I redact that last parenthetical for reasons mentioned in the comments of this post).

So if other countries have elections, and then build coalitions, it could be said that we Americans build coalitions in the form of our two parties, and then have elections.

  • It seems there is no possibility for those who just left or for isolationism or anything else to express their views: each major party is a mix of ideologies so if you left and vote for Democrats you see forceful overthrow of left governments abroad. If you want isolationism, you vote for Republicans and get invasion in Iraq etc. That's why my question, why the parties who express their views clearly do not receive much votes.
    – Anixx
    Commented May 20, 2012 at 18:15
  • White Southern Baptists used to vote Dem, but today they're very unwelcome in that party.
    – dan04
    Commented Jun 16, 2012 at 20:11
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    @dan04 - Not true. Who are the most prominent living "white" Democrats? Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Al Gore are all white Southern Baptists, and appear to be quite welcome in the party. If anything, it is fairer to say that Democrats these days aren't made particularly welcome by the leadership of the Southern Baptist convention.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Jun 21, 2012 at 18:28
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    You've got Proposition 8 backwards. It was a successfully passed proposition which banned gay marriage in California.
    – 8bittree
    Commented Aug 25, 2016 at 15:42
  • @8bittree You're right; I do. Not sure what I was thinking of there. Got lines crossed, I guess. =/ Commented May 11, 2017 at 1:16

Another reason that minor political parties receive so few votes in the United States is the strength of party identification. The reality is that most people take on the political party of their family, and once they are a "member" of a political party they are very unlikely to change that membership for a minor political party.

The book Partisan Hearts and Minds talks about how political party affiliation is similar to religious affiliation, except that you are more likely to switch your religious affiliation than your party affiliation. This strong sense of party identity is paired with a general disinterest in the specifics of the political system which has been expertly showcased in the seminal work American Voter, and the horribly depressing, but spot on, book Stealth Democracy.

So, basically you have a system that was not designed with political parties in mind, populated by voters that are born into their political camps and have little interest in the specifics of the government/political system, which means that they are not terribly inclined to go through all the additional work that would come with supporting some third-party candidate.

  • 1
    Good point that the original US system was not designed for modern-style political parties at all. Back then the politicians were by and large a collection of gentlemen (either landowners or professionals) of independent means who had some leisure and a proclivity to take up state business. I'm exaggerating but not much... Commented Jul 25, 2013 at 10:39
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    @FelixGoldberg is actually not exaggerating in the slightest.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Jul 26, 2013 at 14:10

Not an answer that is going to be upvoted, but most people in the USA, and other single-member constituency systems, vote primarily against a candidate, not for one. (I have no evidence of this, except personal observation.) This is why, particularly in the United States, politics can get very nasty and personal, and the most effective political advertising is negative. People don't vote to get their candidate elected, they vote to keep the opposing candidate out.

Some countries, like Russia, as I remember being told once, have a minimum percentage that a winning candidate has to reach. This is not the case in the USA (or Britain). In Australia, they have a single transferable vote, but single member constituencies. Australians have to rank all the candidates in their preferred order. Except for a single regional party, all constituencies end up being a competition between the two largest parties.

It's the same in almost all countries with similar electoral systems. Britain, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, and historically in many South American countries. A partial exception is India, where some parties have regional support, which can make for a third force.

The trend is exacerbated in the USA, where primary elections give the voters a more direct voice in choosing the two main candidates, so that some of the differences of opinion that lead to third parties elsewhere are sorted out at that stage. In this respect, the formal actual election in the USA is rather like the run-off election between the top two candidates you get in other places, such as French presidential elections.


Another reason for this might be that many countries require all citizens to vote on election day. The US does not. Thus, an unmotivated voter in the US stays home whereas in other countries he might pull the lever for some random fellow.

  • "many countries require all citizens to vote on election day" - really?
    – Anixx
    Commented Jul 20, 2015 at 19:22
  • 1
    @Anixx: Australia and 22 other countries have compulsory voting laws, but apparently only 10 countries actually enforce them.
    – two sheds
    Commented Jul 20, 2015 at 19:41
  • @two sheds actually I found the real answer to this question: this is because all states in the USA have different ballot lists, one can participate in presidential election in only one state without being on the ballot in others. This system is very specific for the USA.
    – Anixx
    Commented Jul 20, 2015 at 19:45

CGP Grey has a nice video explaining why the first-past-the-post voting system usually ends up with a two-party system. As others have said it burns down to:

You hurt the party you can most agree with by voting for a minority party (which doesn't get elected anyway). So you vote "strategically" for a party with a good chance of winning.

  • I already explained why first-past-the-post does not answer this question. The answer is actually different ballot lists in different states.
    – Anixx
    Commented Jan 20, 2016 at 23:55

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