BETHLEHEM, Pa. (WLVT) - In Pennsylvania, the race for the White House in 2016 came down to 44,292 votes. That was the margin of victory for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton. In that same election, 269,534 Pennsylvanians voted for other candidates. Third-party voters have often been called "spoilers," but they say people shouldn't feel obligated to vote Republican or Democrat.
"Would I want to sit next to either Trump or [Joe] Biden in a dark movie theater? No," said Jane Horvath, chair of the Northampton County Libertarian Party. "Jo Jorgensen? Yeah, I'd share some popcorn with her."
"Democrats and Republicans don't seem to stand for much of anything these days," added her husband Jake Towne, who is the local chapter's secretary.
The Libertarian Party's presidential candidate Jo Jorgensen is on every ballot in the country. Northampton County supporters say they want her on the debate stage with Trump and Biden.
"I think they would see a sane, compassionate candidate, and then, they would see two blowhards yelling at each other," Horvath said. "Perhaps they could all look at each other and go, 'Wow, why would we vote for one of these guys?'"
"She's calm, poised, and what you'll also get is a very different perspective on things which I think should be injected into the mainstream of debate," Towne added.
Howie Hawkins is the Green Party’s choice for president, but he will not be on the ballot in the Keystone State. The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania recently sided with Democrats who claimed Hawkins and the Green Party didn't submit their paperwork properly. Now, supporters will have to vote for Hawkins as a write-in candidate.
"We really need to look at how we have ballot access in general, because when a party has so much money and can take another party to court and just zap them of their entire funds, I think that should be illegal," said Tina Olson, the temporary chair of the Green Party of the Lehigh Valley.
Historically, third-party candidates have been overshadowed by those running as Republicans and Democrats, but their presence on the ballot has had a profound effect.
Looking at Pennsylvania’s numbers from the last presidential election, the Green Party’s Jill Stein had 49,941 votes, which exceeded the number of votes separating Trump and Clinton. The Libertarian Party’s Gary Johnson nearly tripled Stein's ballot count at 146,715.
"If those votes broke largely perhaps in 2016 to Hillary Clinton, it might have been a different story," said Dr. Chris Borick, the director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion. "Third-party candidates can have an enormous impact on the outcome, and that’s always a big decision."
As of Monday, September 28, 45 percent of Northampton County voters are registered Democrats (100,272), 36 percent are Republicans (78,804), 16 percent claim no party affiliation (35,094), and just 3 percent are actually registered to a third party (6,747).
However, the numbers don’t tell the full story. Pennsylvania has what’s called a "closed primary," which means only registered Republicans and Democrats are allowed to vote in those elections.
"The Democrats and Republicans, they control them," Towne said. "They wrote the rules for them. They're paid for by the taxpayer. They disallow any minority party from taking part in a primary by having these rules where it's impossible to get on into a primary race."
"I was registered as a Democrat earlier this year just to vote in the primary," Olson said. "Before that, I was an independent."
"I understand people who choose to stay registered with a party, because they want to feel that power of having that little extra say of voting in a primary -- that maybe they can help choose the better candidate," Horvath added, "and it's a shame that's the system that's in place."
"We have a lot of individuals in Pennsylvania that are registered as either Democratic or Republican, but when you ask them how they consider themselves, they say they're independent," Borick said "They are not really of the party, even if they are registered that way, and that's important to know -- and that number has been growing."
So far this year, 34,501 Pennsylvanians have left either the Republican Party or Democratic Party to register as something else -- whether that’s unaffiliated or with another party, according to the Pennsylvania Department of State.
Olson voted for Bernie Sanders as a registered Democrat in the June primary and switched to the Green Party after that.
"In the Democratic party specifically, there is a progressive wing, and we see time and time again that the more centrist politicians that are higher up in ranking are trying to squelch that progressive wing by running candidates against them in their own party," she said.
"The brands of both the Republican and Democratic party nationally are very tarnished right now," Borick said. "If you look historically how they're viewed by the public, neither brand is stellar. This opens the door, I believe, for individuals to consider third parties."
The process of how Americans vote is considered a fundamental issue for third-party supporters. The country has what’s called "plurality voting," where a voter can only pick one candidate per race, and whoever has the most votes wins.
However, other forms of voting could help elevate third-party candidates. One option is called "approval voting," where voters can choose multiple candidates in a race.
"You walk into a supermarket, and you have a choice between Coke or Pepsi, but what if you want anything else?" Towne said. "You're not given these other flavors. In lots of other situations in life, in the free market, there should be other ideas and candidates as well."
"It's you voting your conscience," Horvath said, "and then, each of those candidates that you like -- you like this one, you like that one -- equal weight. If everybody does that, there is no spoiler, because the person with the most votes wins."
Another option is called "ranked choice voting" (RCV). This system allows voters to prioritize candidates by preference. The state of Maine is using RCV in the upcoming general election.
"Let's say I vote for Howie Hawkins, and I really don't want Trump to win again," Olson explained. "There's a very good chance that if I could vote Biden as my second choice, my vote would count towards that...eliminating any kind of spoiler effect."
"I would argue a lot of times when you vote for a Republican or Democrat, that's actually the wasted vote, because what you're voting for is the system that oppresses the voter," Towne said. "Most races in Pennsylvania, you get less than two choices."
Towne ran for Congress in 2010 without registering with a party. Republican Charlie Dent won, but Towne earned seven percent of votes (15,248), a better-than-average performance for third-party candidates.
"It was very difficult. I had to collect about 7,000 signatures to get on the ballot to be sure to stay on the ballot, and I spent most of my time doing that," he said.
He later became a Libertarian and ran for office several more times, winning the race for auditor in Lower Nazareth Township in 2017. While getting on the ballot comes with challenges, third-party voters say representation goes a long way.
"If you want to make a difference personally -- if you want to run unaffiliated -- go to the elections office, get the paperwork, go online, run for office," Horvath said.
"I'm running," Olson added. "I haven’t chosen what i want to run for, but I will find a place."
"It is much harder for third-party candidates to get on ballots than the two major parties," Borick said. "In many ways. Republicans and Democrats historically have colluded to prevent third parties from having an easy path to get on ballots."
Looking ahead to the presidential election, Jorgensen and Hawkins will likely finish as runners-up, but local third-party voters say they won’t let the numbers influence how they cast their ballots.
"If you view the two candidates as bad choices or evil, whatever you want to call it, you don't have to vote for them," Towne said. "The lesser of two evils is still evil."
"Politics are like sports. Some people like the underdog, and some people will go with a team that they know is going to go to the Super Bowl," Olson said. "If that pleases them in that way, then I can't really judge that, but, for me, I root for the underdog a lot."
"Why wouldn't I vote for the person who would like to see an office, rather than vote against someone that I think is more bad than the other? It just doesn't make sense to me to vote any other way," Horvath said.
In addition to the presidential race, Libertarian and Green Party candidates are running for state offices in Pennsylvania, including auditor general, attorney general and state treasurer. For a link to sample ballots in Northampton County, click HERE.