by J Scott Christianson, Columbia Daily Tribune Columnist

As the newspaper you’re reading rolled off the press, Election Day was half over. Unlike most amateur political pundits, I am willing to put my reputation on the line and call some of these races right now.

In the race for Missouri auditor, Charles Baum and Terry Bunker will lose. In the race for the Ninth District congressional seat, Bill Hastings and Steven Hedrick will lose. Frank Gilmour and Lydia Lewis will lose in the race for U.S. Senate. In fact, I predict every third-party candidate will lose.

OK, I’ll admit this isn’t a risky call. But why is their failure such a safe bet? Is it because the Progressive and Libertarian candidates would make bad officeholders? No. Is it because they represent bad policies? No.

It is because of the way we elect our representatives. We generally elect just one person to represent a given political district. For example, voters in the 23rd District will elect just one person to represent them in the Missouri House. They are not allowed to elect three or four people to represent the 23rd District in Jefferson City. This causes a natural inclination for the voters to choose between two alternatives instead of three, five or 10. Since the beginning of our democracy, this system has discouraged third parties and reinforced the two-party system.

There have been some third-party successes, but they are the rare exceptions that prove the rule. The heyday for third parties was in the late 1800s and early 1900s. In the 1892 presidential election, the Populist Party candidate ran on a platform of abolition of the gold standard, direct election of senators, graduated income tax and eight-hour working days. He received 8 percent of the popular vote and 22 electoral votes. While that wasn’t enough to win the presidency, it proved the Populist Party vote was significant. Both parties courted Populist voters and eventually assimilated their ideas.

Today, gerrymandering and the influence of moneyed special interests have made third parties less viable than in 1892. When Ross Perot ran in 1992, he spent more than $65 million of his own money and got only 19 percent of the popular vote and no Electoral College votes. By many accounts, he was a spoiler responsible for the defeat of George H.W. Bush. In 2000, Ralph Nader, while winning no votes in the Electoral College, cost Al Gore the election.

But unlike a hundred years ago, the two major parties see little reason to assimilate third-party ideas into their platforms. Both parties have ignored most of Perot’s and Nader’s issues.

Today, the best a third-party candidate can hope for is to be a spoiler. Progressive Party candidate Bill Hastings affirms this goal on his Web site: “I am willing to help the Democrats lose Congress in 2006 … .”

Unfortunately, third-party candidates end up hurting their friends and helping their enemies. Consider that the Republican Party was the major supporter for collecting signatures to get Nader on the ballot in 2004 and this year gave more than $100,000 in an effort to get Green Party candidate Carl Romanelli on the ballot for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania.

So tomorrow, when the Progressive and Libertarian campaigns are taking down yard signs and recycling literature, there is just one question they need to ask themselves: Was Don Quixote happy?

If you think tilting at windmills is a worthwhile enterprise, then continue with your third-party efforts. Working for a third party can be a secure position: You will never have to worry about having political power or responsibility.

If you’d rather have an effect on policy and the direction the country is headed, get involved in either the Republican or Democratic Party. At the local level, neither party is the organized machine it is made out to be. Anyone who is willing to show up and work can have a substantial effect on a local political party and its candidates. Both parties need an infusion of new ideas, and any changes to the electoral system that would make third parties viable will have to come from within one of today’s two dominant parties.

Tomorrow, political pundits will be trying to find meaning in today’s election. For third parties, today’s election means just one thing: If you are never in a position to win, you will never be able to effect change.