Although the Libertarian Party and Gary Johnson are enjoying some visibility presently, the party needs to think more strategically and focus considerable effort on voting system reform.
The Johnson-Weld 2016 ticket is receiving more attention than previous Libertarian Party tickets in large part due to the unappealing nominations of the two mainstream parties: Donald Trump
and Hillary Clinton. However, despite what may be the most amenable presidential election in history for the Libertarian Party—one where numerous voters are theoretically open to other options—Johnson-Weld remains a long shot.
It's not that Johnson's message does not resonate with people. It's that people feel they cannot afford to vote Johnson in light of the stakes of the Trump versus Clinton battle.
Our voting model is to blame
In the United States, we use plurality voting
, where each voter may cast one and only one vote of approval. Whatever historic rationale may explain our use of plurality voting
, the damage plurality voting is causing in the present day cannot be denied.
Plurality voting creates the two-party system that Americans have come to take for granted. It does this by way of a principle of electoral theory called Duverger's Law
. Put simply, plurality voting causes voters to vote strategically rather than based on preference alone.
Strategic voting is casting a vote for the least evil candidate who you believe has a good chance of winning. It is what causes those who approve of Johnson's message to nevertheless vote Trump or Clinton. They do so because they feel they cannot afford to risk allowing the greater evil to win. They do so because they can only vote for one candidate
Strategic voting is a hallmark of plurality voting. In fact, the notion of a strategic vote doesn't really exist in superior voting models such as score voting or approval voting
. In score voting or approval voting, voters score or approve of candidates according to their preference. Full stop.
Approval or score voters don't need to worry about who everyone else might be voting for. Other peoples' votes need not affect the approval or score voter's decision process. If a voter approves of both Johnson and Clinton, for example, approval voting allows them to voice precisely that sentiment by voting for both.
Score voting goes a step further and allows a voter to render judgment on the candidates. A voter who approves of Johnson fully and of Trump partially can give Johnson 100 points and Trump 25 points, as just one of nearly infinite examples.
A voter could even cast the ultimate vote of no confidence by giving all candidates a 0 score.
Voting reform as electoral lubricant
Today, attempting to change an American's vote requires three things:
- You must explain why your candidate is good. This can be relatively simple, assuming the candidate and voter have some opinions in common.
- You must explain why their current candidate is bad, or at least worse than your candidate. This can be difficult, especially if the opposition candidate and voter have a lot of opinions in common.
- If your candidate is a third-party candidate, you must furthermore explain that voting for your candidate is not a waste, and doing so doesn't necessarily advantage the worse evil among the two main parties. This is extremely difficult, and you are likely to accomplish this with only the most disenfranchised, partisan, or open-minded of voters. Good luck!
Put succinctly, there is enormous friction that you must overcome in order to change an American's vote.
Score and approval voting alleviate a huge amount of that friction by completely removing the need to paint the opposition as bad. And for third-party candidates, they remove the friction—roadblock
is a more appropriate word—of the fear of "throwing your vote away."
In score and approval voting, it is impossible to throw your vote away.
Johnson and Weld need to talk about voting reform
This election cycle is a miracle for the Libertarian Party. The universe has seen fit to give us the worst Republican and Democratic candidates in our collective memory. And still, we struggle to achieve even enough support to earn an invitation to the debates. Putting aside the idiotic rules about debate invitations, third parties need to realize that our voting model is the root problem.
The Johnson-Weld ticket
should adopt a plank of voting reform, and feature it prominently. The approval ratings for Trump and Hillary are abysmal. Wide swaths of voters are feeling disenfranchised; they feel these two candidates simply can't be our only options. And yet they fear voting for Johnson. That fear is rooted in our voting model.
Johnson and Weld should talk about voting reform whenever they are interviewed and hammer the issue hard. Something like this:
Look, we hear people are disgusted by the candidates the Republicans and Democrats have nominated. The Trump and Clinton nominations are the result of a broken voting system where people routinely have to select the lesser of two evils. That system is called plurality voting. We support adoption of approval or score voting, where voters would be able to vote for as many or as few candidates as they wish—both in primaries and in the general election. We support voting models where you could vote for our ticket and your favorite of the other two without worrying that you're throwing your vote away.
This message will resonate with people who feel disenfranchised by the mainstream parties.
We won't have approval or score voting in the United States until we somehow vote in people who will make it happen, and do so within the current plurality model. But showing people a path to improving the situation may just give them the justification they need for taking the risk to vote for Johnson-Weld in 2016.
Learn more about score voting