Illustration by Ryan Tran

The lesser of two evils. Anyone but  _____. These disaffected refrains are common in our current political climate.

Despite warnings of partisan polarization from George Washington and John Adams, electoral politics in this country have been governed by a two-party system since the beginning. Centuries-old divergent interests paved the way for today’s polarized political climate.

The political and economic divide between the North and South in the late 18th century led to the development of a two-party system in the U.S. In the north, industrialization catalyzed a shift away from subsistence farming. And while slavery existed throughout the country, the economy of the south was particularly dependent on slave labor — it would have crumbled without it. 

Although the country’s population and geography expanded and changed throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, the electoral system remained mostly stagnant. And despite a realignment of party ideologies during the 1860s, political division persisted.

These effects are echoed in our present, gridlocked democracy. We’ve reached a point where voters are restricted to voting for either a Democratic or Republican Party candidate because those are the only viable parties with a shot to win seats at any level. 

Progress falters due to divisive party ideologies and limited opportunities for coalition-building. The pace of legislation moving through a severely polarized Congress is too slow for the social, cultural and climate change around us.

When the two sides of the aisle refuse to compromise, or when one side stonewalls, the whole system grinds to a halt. Political showmanship, tricky maneuvering and bad faith defenses take the place of governance.

 Rather than organizing around outdated partisan ideologies, lawmakers should be flexible enough to build coalitions on an issue-by-issue basis. If a number of small parties representing a greater nuance of interests organizes collaboratively to achieve legislative goals, partisan polarization and gridlock will decrease, and voter turnout will increase. 

The U.S. House of Representatives, in particular, was designed to represent the interests of the country’s entire population. But those are empty words in a nation where average voter turnout during midterm elections has wavered between 42 and 53 percent over the last 40 years. 

Besides the historically prevalent and well-documented practice of voter suppression, there’s another big reason people in the U.S. don’t vote. When you aren’t excited about a candidate or a party, you’re less likely to fill out a ballot. 

There has been a steady increase in the number of voters registering as Independents over the last four generations. While only 37 percent of baby boomers are registered Independents, 50 percent of millennials are. 

These numbers are telling. More and more young people are registering as independents because they don’t identify with either the Democratic or Republican parties. The two-party system is pushing people out.

Multi-party systems across the world have dramatically higher voter turnout. In their 2014 national elections, Belgium and Sweden saw 87 and 82 percent, respectively, of their voting-age populations turn out to vote. 

This kind of system prevents one party from gaining too much power, forces parties to work together and provides a broader range of political representation to voters. 

Our two-party system creates a binary that excludes millions of voters each election cycle. While there are technically more than two parties, many voters view a vote for a third party candidate as a waste because it’s next to impossible for them to win a major election. Rather than simply throwing away their vote, they choose to reluctantly vote for a candidate or not vote at all. 

We need to adapt U.S. electoral politics to support the creation and fruition of a variety of political parties, not just two. The right to vote means a whole lot less when someone feels there are no good options. If this country wants to live up to the “democratic” label it claims so dearly, it’s about time voters have real choices about which candidates and parties they vote for.