ATLANTA - With media attention focused almost exclusively on the dramatic contest between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, millions of U.S. voters probably have no inkling that there is a ballot option beyond the Democratic and Republican Parties.
"There needs to be room for a lot of policy threads in American discourse. But the corporate media is not informing the people," Cynthia McKinney, the front-runner for the Green Party presidential nomination, told IPS during a rare 90-minute interview.
Founded in 2001 as the successor of the Association of State Green Parties, the party's platform revolves around environmentalism, non-violence, social justice and grassroots organising. It has slightly more than 300,000 registered voters nationwide, and a standing ballot line in 20 states plus Washington, DC. In other states, the party must circulate petitions to get its candidates on the ballot.
McKinney, a former congressional representative from Georgia, abandoned the Democratic Party last year in disgust at its failure to end the U.S. troop presence in Iraq, and is now poised for a presidential run on the Green Party ticket.
She has won Green Party primaries in Arkansas, Illinois, and Washington, DC. Ralph Nader, who gave the party national stature as its candidate in 2000, won in California and Massachusetts, prior to announcing he is running as an Independent instead.
McKinney also won the Green state caucuses in Wisconsin and Rhode Island, and has a total of 71 delegates. Trailing candidates include Kent Mesplay (10 delegates), Howie Hawkins (8), Jesse Johnson (2) and Kat Swift (2).
The likelihood of McKinney winning the nomination at the party's national convention in Chicago this summer is "very high", Richard Winger, editor of Ballot Access News, told IPS, although he added that the Green Party will have a "one in a million" chance of winning the presidency this November.
"This country, even though it claims to be such a model, is one of the least democratic countries because election laws, campaign finance laws, and laws around debates openly discriminate against all parties except two parties [Republican and Democrat]," Winger said.
"In other countries, there is one set of [ballot access] laws," instead of 51 sets governing the 50 states and the capital, he said. "This is the only country that exempts the two biggest parties from having to qualify."
Scott McLarty, the national Green Party spokesperson, told IPS, "We would like to see our presidential ticket get five percent of the vote."
Despite the fact that winning is pretty much out of the question, many party activists are excited by the prospect of McKinney's campaign inspiring a "Black-Brown-Green Coalition".
"Of course you've got the situation that the Green Party is basically a party of whites. So they are extremely aware of that fact, except in Massachusetts and DC where they merged with the Rainbow Party. You have a little more people of colour in those two states," McKinney, who is African American, told IPS.
"There is a real need of the values of the Green Party to be known among all people of the country, not just a few," she said.
The Green Party admits this problem. "That's true except in certain locations. In DC, the Green Party membership is mostly black. Among leaders, there's a lot of diversity," said McLarty.
"Over the past couple decades, there has been a belief that the environmental movement is a white phenomenon and the Green Party has been associated with the environment even though we cover other things like health care and the war," he told IPS.
"On top of that, a lot of black voters have felt a very strong loyalty to the Democratic Party. When people feel strong loyalty to one party, they are less likely to support start-up parties," McLarty said.
"It's always been true of minor parties in U.S. You'd think African Americans would have been angry enough to leave the two major parties. Tradition goes back 100 years ago that African Americans are not interested in other parties," Winger said.
McKinney, McLarty, and Winger each have different ideas of how the Green Party should approach its political development.
"I asked for candidate recruitment because the purpose of a political party is to win office. They have successfully recruited more than 500 candidates," McKinney said.
However, the fact that the Green Party is not on the ballot in McKinney's home state "looks weak", Winger pointed out. Georgians will need to collect over 40,000 signatures by July to get McKinney on the ballot, Winger said, and they've only collected about 3,000.
"Some people have been out of the political system for a very long time," McKinney noted. "They made a choice to not be involved in the political process. After a series of disappointments, people made a rational choice. Unfortunately, the U.S. participation rates are well below that of other countries."
In recent years, Green parties have been racking up electoral successes around the world, particularly in Europe.
"The Green Party participated in the coalition that led in Germany and in Ireland and in the Kenyan Parliament," McKinney said. "The Green Party is international."
"We have a winner-take-all system in the U.S. that pushes conformity," she added. "Regressive ballot access laws in Georgia [and other states] prevent candidates from getting on the ballot."
"The Green Party is a political entity that deserves to be built," she said.