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Four years later, Mr. Jefferson was the leader of the Democratic Republicans, a counter to the Federalist Party.

The reason? Mr. Jefferson was principled, but no fool. In America, two-party rule is the rule, thanks largely to our electoral system.

In nations with proportional representation — that is, the number of legislative seats won by a party is proportional to their percentage of the popular vote — third parties thrive. On the other hand, American winner-take-all voting encourages the formation of two large, heterogeneous parties while limiting the ability of smaller, more eclectic parties to compete.

To wit: A victorious party gains self-sustaining power and prestige. A second-place party can position itself as a credible alternative for the next election. And a third-place party is pretty much out of luck.

In 1992, Reform Party presidential candidate H. Ross Perot ran one of the most successful third-party campaigns in American history, capturing 19 percent of the popular vote. His reward? Zero electoral votes.

“It’s nowhere written in the Constitution that there is a two-party system or that the Democrats and Republicans have to be those two parties,” said Mr. Hammond, the Unity Party chairman. “But with the Electoral College and winner-take-all system, there will always be a pull to two major parties. That’s how you win the presidency.”

The most third parties typically can hope for is to play the role of vote-splitting spoiler. In 1912, Theodore Roosevelt’s Bull Moose Party divided the Republican vote and put Woodrow Wilson in the White House; in 1992, Mr. Perot likely tipped the election to Democrat Bill Clinton; in the ultraclose 2000 election, Ralph Nader probably did the same for Republican winner George W. Bush.

In 1892, the People’s Party defied the odds and pulled off one of the most successful third-party challenges in American history, winning four states and 11 congressional seats. Four years later, they were co-opted by the Democrats, endorsing nominee William Jennings Bryan.

Even when third parties win, they lose.

“When I told my family I was running as Unity Party candidate, my father supported me,” Mr. Hammond said. “The rest were like, ‘Good luck with that.’ They’re members of the major parties.

“A lot of people are not going to vote for a third-party candidate because they don’t think we can win. But you know, one day that can change. I’m in this for the long haul. Once you cross that threshold where people think you can win, it’s an entirely new ballgame.”

Planting seeds

Ms. Nall was under no such illusions. She knew she couldn’t win. Winning wasn’t the point of her candidacy. Change was.

Inspired to enter politics after a 2002 police helicopter raid on her house and subsequent arrest for misdemeanor marijuana possession — Ms. Nall maintains her innocence — she began her campaign to end marijuana prohibition by attempting to persuade her own family, a “very long line of deeply Christian, hard core Republicans.”

The drug war, she argued, is a colossal failure — overcrowding prisons, expanding the size of government, infringing on civil liberties, splitting up families, draining the treasury.

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