Many pro-third-party and pro-independent voters resign themselves to the difficulty of winning a federal congressional seat. There are, after all, just two, assuming you count Connecticut senator Joe Lieberman, who lost a reelection primary after three successful bids as a member of the Democratic party before deciding to go it alone. A strict count might only include Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, who never once ran for office as a member of either of the major parties. Counting both men, out of the 535 House and Senate members that's only about 0.37%. Meanwhile, there are 7,442 state legislators currently serving in the 50 state legislatures. Some believe that at the state level, since it's a smaller and less rancorous market, third-party and independent candidates can have more success.
So, out of those 7,442 seats, how many do you think are not currently filled by Republicans or Democrats? Write your guess down before reading on.
Did You Write it Down?
Good. Now, if state legislatures had about the same percentage as the US congress, we could expect about 27 or 28 independent and third-party members. The truth? It's actually a little bit lower than that. There are, according to Wikipedia, just 24 such legislators. And about half of them are independent more in the Lieberman sense than in the Sanders sense.
Consider members like Harri Smith of the Alabama Senate, who lost a Republican primary and endorsed the Democrat. She was expelled from the Republican party for doing so, and ran as an independent in the subsequent election, in which the Democratic party did not field a candidate; Smith won. Or New York Assembly member Fred Thiele, who was originally elected to his seat as a Republican in 1995. After a decade and a half of reelections, Thiele joined the Independence Party of New York in 2009, and held on to his seat. Or you can find a hybrid version of those two stories in what Kent Williams did. Elected to the Tennessee House in 2006 and 2008 as a Republican, in his second term he was elected speaker—via the unanimous votes of the Democratic members of the body, and a lone Republican vote from himself. Promptly expelled from the Republicans, he decided to make his own party.
These politicians, like Lieberman, seem more opportunistic than truly independent. But there are some independent state legislators about whom, like Sanders, there is no such doubt. And like Sanders, most of them are in the state of Vermont. In fact, of the 24 legislators, ten of them are from that one small state. That's over 40% of the non-Democrat non-Republican state legislators in the country, from a state with just 0.2% of the nation's population. Of the ten, three list themselves as independents, while the other seven are members of the Vermont Progressive Party, making it the only third party with a substantial (>2%) presence in any state legislature.
Why has Vermont's Progressive party been so successful? Not because of an advanced voting method; despite the party's support for instant runoff voting (which doesn't even help third parties) the Vermont legislature is elected by plurality, just like the other 49 states. We get an interesting piece of information by looking at the state wide voter totals. Despite taking 3.89% of the legislative seats, the party only received 2.96% of the votes. It's very unusual for a third party's seat-percentage to over-perform its vote-percentage like that, and it happens because, as they say on their website, "We pick the races we enter strategically." Sometimes this means a fusion ticket with the Democrats, or sometimes it means that there's enough political space to the left of the Democrats for the party to succeed on its own. This is possible because parts of the state have a significantly-more than 2:1 voter preference imbalance between the Democrats and the Republicans, leading to the unlikely situation where two left-wing candidates can run without concern of splitting the vote, effectively making the Republican party the "third party" in those elections.
But other states have pockets with similar imbalances, and other states allow fusion tickets, so make no mistake: the Vermont Progressive party's success isn't based strictly on those elements of their voting environment. They're doing something right.
Third party and independent legislators are no more common, overall, in state legislatures than in the national legislature. But an astounding number can be found in Vermont. Third party supporters may want to take a close look at what the Progressive party is doing there, and try to emulate it.