Vote third-party?

It sounds perfectly reasonable.

To many, the two-party system seems broken. Maybe neither the Republican nor Democratic candidate fully represents their values and hopes for America’s future. Perhaps they like the general platform of an office seeker, but don’t like him or her personally ... Or maybe it’s the reverse: They identify with the candidate, but not his or her political views.

Whatever the reason, many Americans aren’t satisfied with the two options presented on Election Day — Republican or Democrat. They want something different. They want someone who isn’t like all the other politicians.

And they think a third-party candidate could be the answer.

This election year offers no shortage of folks running for office without the traditional “R” or “D” next to their names. In the presidential race, for example, Libertarian Gary Johnson and Reform Party hopeful Chuck Baldwin are listed on the Kansas ballot along with Republican Mitt Romney and Democrat Barack Obama. Elsewhere in the country, such names as the Green Party’s Jill Stein and the Peace and Freedom Party’s Roseanne Barr (yes, that Rosanne ... and her running mate is notorious antiwar activist Cindy Sheehan) are available for easy voter selection.

So which one of these third-party candidates has a realistic shot at winning the presidency?

Well, none of them, of course.

Libertarian Johnson is the strongest of the long-shot competitors, sporting the largest following outside the Republican and Democratic parties. Capitalizing on disaffected Americans’ hunger for less government intrusion and more personal freedom, Johnson and other Libertarian candidates have made inroads this political season, helping to legitimize their movement.

But in most cases — particularly with the presidency — they have no real hope of winning. Just ask Libertarian Congressional candidate Dennis Hawver.

“I run for office as a hobby ... because Libertarians never get elected. ... We realize that,” Hawver, who is running for the U.S. House in Kansas’ 2nd District, said Tuesday at a candidate forum in Ottawa. “However, if I could express to you some of our concerns, then you can decide who got us into this mess … and I suspect it was Republicans and Democrats. They’ve worked together like a tightly synchronized machine to put us in the deepest economic crisis our country’s ever been in. So, I don’t think there’s much we can do about it except get food in the house. ... I’m dead serious, guys.”

For Hawver, and many of those like him, it isn’t about winning the election — it’s about getting their message out. And with political campaigns now costing oodles upon oodles of dollars, that makes for a costly message ... in more ways than one.

See, third-party candidates’ biggest success often is in sabotaging — intentionally or not — the opportunity for victory for the mainstream candidate (Republican or Democrat) most ideologically similar to them. The result? The third-party actually helps to elect the candidate with which its members disagree the most.

Think Ross Perot in 1992. Or Ralph Nader in 2000.

Perot took needed votes (and momentum) away from George H.W. Bush in his fight against Bill Clinton. The Green Party’s Nader did the same to Al Gore.

It might feel good to vote third-party, but such votes become a self-righteous betrayal of voters’ most beloved causes when they indirectly help elect the most staunch opposition.

Today, Johnson has the potential to put Romney in the same electoral jeopardy. (To a lesser extent, the once-popular comedian known simply as “Roseanne” could siphon away some votes from Obama because less-than-serious voters might think it’s funny to check her name on their ballots.)

Some political scientists joke that “Libertarians are just Republicans who want to smoke pot.” It’s an overly simplified explanation, but there is an inkling of truth in it. Though they might not want to admit it, Libertarians most closely resemble members of the GOP because of their views on liberty and other Constitutional rights. So it isn’t a stretch to think people voting Libertarian otherwise would be casting their votes for Republicans.

Third-party candidates and voters of all political stripes would do well to take a page from the Tea Party’s handbook. One of the most successful movements from outside the mainstream of the two-party system, the Tea Party affected real change at the polls by working within the Republican Party — not against it.

If libertarian-leaning candidates want to get elected to high office, they need to work with the existing system rather than fighting a losing battle during every election cycle. To do otherwise is simply an exercise in short-sighted, ego-stroking self-gratification.

And it will guarantee they — as well as their closest ideological allies — fail.

Still sound reasonable?

— Tommy Felts,

managing editor