Lois Barry, Union County Progressives/Democrats

The first two major political parties were established in 1792: the Federalist Party and the Democratic-Republican Party. Obviously, party names and platforms have shifted over the centuries, but the two-party system has endured for 226 years.

In 2000, the major parties ruled that for a candidate to be included in the national debates, he or she must demonstrate at least 15 percent support across five national polls. Because it effectively excludes all but candidates of the two major parties, this ruling remains controversial. Considering the immense number of choices available in virtually every aspect of our daily lives, faced with a limited either/or choice, a number of voting-age citizens have affiliated with neither. In 2017, 31 percent of Americans identified as Democrat, 24 percent identified as Republican and 42 percent as Independent.

Some have aligned themselves with splinter parties like Libertarians, Green Party and Progressives, even though the candidate they support is unlikely to appear on the presidential ballot. They also cite a preference for the European parliamentary system, which provides proportional seats and influence to a variety of parties, depending on the number of votes each candidate receives. Regrettably, many have chosen to withdraw from the political process altogether. In the 2016 election, of more than 250 million citizens of voting age, less than 138 million voted.

Why join a political party? The alarming dominance of relatively new forces that function outside the major political parties — super PACs and individual billionaires who exercise unregulated influence on the political process — is one compelling reason. Working within your party to focus on campaign finance reform is more likely to yield results than complaining about your frustrations to friends and family. No matter the issue, affordable health care, gerrymandering, climate change or immigration reform, your opinions will resonate when echoed by millions who agree with you.

If you decide to “sit it out,” that’s exactly where you will be — out, with no voice in your government. Eighty percent of Americans have never contacted their elected representatives in Congress. One of the best suggestions I’ve heard at a party meeting was “Put your elected officials on your speed dial.”

Most governors, senators and members of Congress begin their political careers close to home. Campaigning for a local candidate is invigorating and rewarding. Win or lose you’ve joined with like-minded individuals to act on your shared convictions and enthusiasms. Plus, involvement in the county and state levels of your party lets you influence state platforms that may then affect national policies.

Americans enthusiastically dedicate themselves to supporting their favorite sports. We avidly watch games and discuss individual players and team performance. At the same time, only 46 percent of Americans know that each state has two senators. These elected officials decide if our water is safe to drink, if our air is safe to breathe and whether our country goes to war. You need to be paying attention to this life-or-death political game, the candidates, policies and programs that daily affect your quality of life.