The NCSL Blog


By Karen Shanton

Democrats and Republicans have an overwhelming grip on most U.S. legislatures. Of the 535 voting members of the U.S. Congress, just two—Maine Senator Angus King and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders (pictured)—are independents and zero identify primarily with a third party. According to NCSL data from March 24, 47 of the 49 partisan state legislatures similarly have two or fewer independent or third-party members. Thirty-nine of them have none.

However, there’s at least one exception to this general rule: Vermont. In the 1980s, progressives in Vermont set out to build a viable third party. That effort, which grew into the Vermont Progressive Party, elected its first candidates to the state House in 1990 and has maintained a steady presence in the chamber ever since. In recent years, the party has also made inroads in the Vermont Senate. Progressives now hold two of that chamber’s 30 seats (a third senator, Timothy Ashe, identifies as a Democrat first and Progressive second).

Independents also play a role in the Vermont House, where they have held at least one and up to four seats every biennium since the early 1990s. Combined, Progressives and independents currently make up about 6 percent both of the state House and of the General Assembly as a whole. And this is not an anomaly. According to data from the Council of State Governments, Progressives and independents have held at least 5 percent of the Vermont House and 4 percent of the total General Assembly for the past decade.

This is a more robust streak of independent and third-party representation than in any other partisan state legislature for at least 30 years. And it far exceeds recent independent and third-party representation in the U.S. Congress. To find a Congress with even 1 percent representation by independents and third parties, we have to track back to the 77th Congress of 1941-1943. For an independent and third-party share that approaches 6 percent, we would have to look even further back, to the close of the 19th century.

Karen Shanton is a legislative studies specialist and ACLS public fellow at NCSL.

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About the NCSL Blog

This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.