When Green Party candidate Rich Whitney won 10 percent of the vote for Illinois governor in 2006, supporters hoped a new day for a party had arrived. Yet today, the Green Party holds just 10 elected seats statewide. None are in Chicago.
Nancy Wade, one of two Illinois Greens running for Congress this year, still believes the party's support is greater than recent elections have shown. Wade is running against U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Chicago, who easily beat his last Green Party challenger. But Wade says the 9,000 signatures she collected to secure ballot access proves her party's popularity.
"There is definitely an appetite for more parties," she said. "There were many people who told me, I wasn't going to vote, but now I know you're going to be on the ballot, I am going to vote. I'm going to vote for you."
The Green Party faces multiple difficulties as it seeks to increase its role in Illinois politics. In an election cycle featuring historic levels of corporate donations, Illinois Green Party candidates reject corporate dollars, helping explain their financial disadvantage. Quigley has raised more than $650,000 for his re-election. Wade hasn't reported anything with the Federal Elections Commission, meaning she has yet to raise or spend more than $5,000.
State law requires their candidates to collect more signatures to get on the ballot than Republicans or Democrats. That would change if the Greens got 5 percent or more in a new statewide race.
America's voting system works against them as well.
"One of the main forces that determines how many parties a country has — or state or region — is electoral law," said Andrew Roberts, a professor at Northwestern University's Institute for Policy Research.
For example, proportional voting systems in Europe award legislative seats to parties based on the percentage of votes their party earned. But in the U.S., only the winners get seats, leaving nothing for smaller parties.
That deters donors and voters from taking a chance on third-party candidacies.
"The standard advice in America is, don't vote for a third party, you're throwing away your vote," Roberts said. "If you give up your vote for one of the top two parties, you're not going to influence that election, and, in fact, you may hurt the party that you care about more." As a result, voters tend to stick with established brands: the Democrats and Republicans.
The phenomenon is so well documented that it's been given a name: Duverger's Law, after the French sociologist, Maurice Duverger, who first described it in the 1950s.
But that doesn't mean the Greens can't compete locally.
"Duverger's Law says that you get two parties, but just at the district level," he said. "So if there's a particular district, it could be Democrat versus Green. It doesn't have to be Democrat versus Republican."
As a result, while the Greens are running a few candidates such as Nancy Wade for high profile offices, they're focusing most of their energies on local districts where they have a chance to win. The party's leadership says candidates such as Jeremy Karpen prove the Greens' viability. Karpen ran in 2010 for state representative of the 39th District, which includes liberal parts of Chicago such as Logan Square. He won 35 percent of the vote, a high percentage in a city dominated by Democrats.
"We can do about two or three strong campaigns a year," said Phil Huckelberry, chairman of the Illinois Green Party. In Chicago, he said, that means running "multiple candidates, but really targeting one or two races where we think we can make a breakthrough."
That's easier said than done. Huckelberry said that after 2010, the Greens struggled with simple afflictions, such as volunteer fatigue and leaders that moved out of state.
"A lot of our stalwarts — they were fried," he said.
Jaime Dominguez, a political science professor at Northwestern University who studies urban politics, said the the Greens are also commonly associated with a narrow set of environmental issues.
"In terms of attracting an electorate, that's very challenging," Rodriguez said. "Most voters, they're not driven by one single issue."
And the party has struggled to make inroads into new parts of the city.
"It's very hard to do that on the South Side," Huckelberry said. "Part of it's because we haven't traditionally had a lot of people of color in the party. But a lot of it is the way in which the machine politics work." Huckelberry said existing political realities intimidate challengers, making it hard for new parties to gain a foothold.
But the Greens' talk about playing a long game, one that will gradually build a new generation of leaders, familiarize the public with the party's principles, and win elections one by one.
"Greens sort of have this bad rap that we're all hippies," said Walter Pituc, campaign manager for Nancy Wade. "But on the contrary, lots of our issues are very pragmatic, they're very sensible." He says "a majority of the people would be in favor" of the party's issues if they heard them. "It's just a matter of getting our message out."