For a minority party like the Libertarians, still trying to make electoral breakthrough in the United States, it is easy to get downcast after Election Day. But 2016 has seen some significant successes that can be built upon to tremendous effect.
The presidential ticket outperformed the 2012 ticket by a wide margin and brought in millions more voters to the party. Johnson-Weld did well enough in many states to guarantee automatic ballot access, which will save the party millions of dollars in petitioning fees and give them more resources to fight actual elections in 2018 and 2020.
These are absolutely great successes worth celebrating. But arguably the greatest victory for the future of the Libertarian Party was won in Maine.
The Maine Democratic, Green, and Libertarian parties worked together (not something you hear every day) to campaign for, and successfully pass, the Ranked Choice Voting Initiative. The initiative puts into place a ranked-choice voting system, in which voters rank their candidate preferences, rather than simply voting for a single candidate in each election.
According to the official ballot summary:
“This initiated bill provides ranked-choice voting for the offices of United States Senator, United States Representative to Congress, Governor, State Senator and State Representative for elections held on or after January 1, 2018. Ranked-choice voting is a method of casting and tabulating votes in which voters rank candidates in order of preference, tabulation proceeds in rounds in which last-place candidates are defeated and the candidate with the most votes in the final round is elected.”
What this means is that, when there are more than two candidates on a ballot, a voter can rank them in order of preference. Then when the votes are tallied, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated and their votes redistributed in accordance with the voter’s next preference. This redistribution occurs until one candidate passes the 50 percent mark or all other candidates are eliminated.
The impact of this initiative should be obvious: Voters for third parties or independent candidates no longer have to worry that they are wasting their votes or acting as spoilers.
This changes the electoral calculus in two ways.
First, it should have a powerful impact on voters’ willingness to cast their ballots for long-shots as first choices. Voters who lean Libertarian or Green no longer need to factor in the closeness of the race between the mainstream Republican and Democratic candidates. This should increase such voting choices, which will hopefully help remove the stigma that hovers over such votes.
The second impact could be more profound. This is the power of second preferences. Currently, candidates campaign for voters to tick their name at the ballot box. But a candidate can succeed in an open field by canvassing not just for first-preferences, but also second-preferences. A Libertarian could thus campaign in liberal areas and ask Republicans, and even some Greens, for their second preferences. The reverse could work in more conservative districts.
Ireland is a perfect example of this sort of voting system in action. Granted, the Irish electoral system has multi-seat constituencies that naturally make small party and independent candidates more competitive, but the result is the same: It opens the field and tends to grant electoral success to smaller parties.
Maine will be an interesting test case of the new system. It may be hard for Libertarians to build significant coalitions in a fairly liberal state, but it is not impossible. More importantly, if the system can be shown to work, it can be expanded to other states where the field is friendlier to a Libertarian.
Hopefully one day soon we will see this sort of voting as an ordinary part of our electoral system, rather than an oddity. It will mean a more democratic America, and one that allows a greater number of voices to be heard. That’s something worth fighting for.
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