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People increasingly want 3rd party candidates, but they still struggle in a system designed to exclude them

Woman speaking with microphone
Princess Blanding addressed Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney and a crowd of activists during the racial justice protests of summer 2020, calling for an overhaul of the criminal justice system. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Recent polls, here and here, show Americans aspire to elect third party candidates more than ever. But voters aren’t showing up to support them, and they’re not being asked to participate in debates. The Northern Virginia Chamber will host the final gubernatorial debate Tuesday between Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Glenn Youngkin. Notably absent is Liberation Party candidate Princess Blanding.  

She qualified for the ballot but was not asked to participate in either of two gubernatorial debates. 

Blanding, whose brother Marcus-David Peters was killed by Richmond police in 2018, is focused on criminal justice reform, police accountability, racial justice and greater investment in communities -- all pillars of the racial justice demonstrations last year.  

Clayton Medford, vice president of government relations for the NOVA chamber, said the group only hosts the Democratic and Republican party candidates at its annual “Top of the Ticket” debates.  But they invited Blanding to attend as a guest and offered her official access to media following the event.  

“We speak to a business audience,” Medford said. “And, historically, and now, we feel that the best opportunity for our members and for the Northern Virginia business community, the best way for them to hear from potential governors and potential office holders is through major party candidates at the Top of the Ticket debate.” 

But Pew and Gallup polls show increasing support among voters for third-party candidates. A Gallup poll from February shows 62% of Americans say a third-party is needed.  

“In broad, abstract terms, there does seem o be this call among voters for more variety and additional parties,” said Jennifer Lawless, professor and chair of the University of Virginia Political Science Department. “But when push comes to shove, they seem to be satisfied with the two broad party options that they have.”

The perception is that third party candidates can’t win, so they rarely gain traction. Another impediment for outsiders is that campaigns for the two top contenders are often the ones negotiating the debate rules. 

“Regardless of the demographics of the candidates, if you look across the country and if you look across election cycles, third-party candidates, whether they’re male or female, white or black, tend to not be on that stage,” Lawless said. 

Blanding, who said she still plans to attend the event, sees things differently. 

“I think these decisions are definitely very oppressive, very sexist, very racist and no I’m not okay with it,” she said. “It’s cute that they gave me an invitation, but it’s not equitable what they’re doing.”

She also attributes her exclusion from debates to her insistence that she not take money from corporations.  

According to the Virginia Public Access Project, Blanding has raised about $22,000, in stark contrast to Youngkin and McAuliffe who have raked in millions from big name donors.

“The oppressive traditions and policies that they are perpetuating, it’s not like it’s something that’s etched in stone. They absolutely have the ability to allow me to debate,” she said. 

Blanding’s economic platform is decidedly focused on the welfare of workers and the environment. She says mandatory paid time off for full-time employees, childcare services and an increase in the minimum wage are the keys to a better economy. 

“Virginia’s way at the top as far as businesses, but we’re down, way at the bottom as far as worker protections, Making sure that we have satisfied, respected employees,” she said. 

Oxfam researchers in 2018 and 2019 listed Virginia as the worst place in America to work. But in 2020 and 2021, the state’s ranking improved dramatically due in large part to changes in wage policies and worker protections. 

The “Top of the Ticket” debate takes place Tuesday from 5:30-8 p.m. at Rachel M. Schlesinger Concert Hall and Arts Center Northern Virginia Community College Alexandria Campus. The fee to attend is $125 for Chamber members and $150 for non-members.

Whittney Evans is VPM News’ features editor.