Gary Johnson’s argument for NPV upended by numbers

Sep 25, 2020

Does voting for a losing candidate mean the vote is “wasted,” or the voter was “disenfranchised”? Unless an election comes down to a single vote (it happens), no individual vote is decisive. But every vote matters—simply casting a ballot is an affirmation of citizenship, and voting for a candidate is a public statement.

Opponents of the Electoral College like to claim that votes are wasted under the current system. Actually, they usually hedge by saying that people “feel” their votes are wasted. This is the argument made by former libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson, writing in support of the National Popular Vote interstate compact in Colorado Politics.

Johnson says more Americans would vote Libertarian if they “felt” their votes would matter. No doubt this is true for any very small political party. But Johnson blames the Electoral College and state winner-take-all laws. This makes no sense at all—and I can prove it.

The Libertarians fielded a candidate for governor in North Carolina in 2016. Lon Cecil received 102,986 votes, 2.19 percent of those cast in the governor’s race. On the same ballot, Johnson received 130,126 votes, 2.74 percent of those cast in the state’s presidential race. In other words, the Libertarian running in the Electoral College did better than the one running in a direct election.

The same thing happened in other states. In Missouri, Johnson received twice the votes as the Libertarian candidate for governor. In Montana, it was nearly double, and in Delaware, Johnson received more than three times the votes as his party’s gubernatorial candidate. This was true in every other state where the Libertarians fielded a candidate for governor except New Hampshire (their gubernatorial candidate beat their presidential ticket by a few hundred more votes).

The Libertarian Party did much better in 2016, especially their presidential ticket, than in many other recent elections. But the fact remains, many more people voted for Johnson than for their candidates for governor even though the presidential race was conducted with the Electoral College and the others were direct elections. As long as we’re electing just one president at a time (or one governor of a state), third parties are going to have a difficult time convincing people to vote for their candidates. Blaming the Electoral College is silly.

Another very silly argument advanced by Johnson is that the current Electoral College system “is not what the Founding Fathers envisioned” and thus should be transformed into a direct election. At the Constitutional Convention, the Founders debated and then rejected a direct election for president. Later, some of the Founders helped enact state winner-take-all laws. And like it or not, the Founders created the two-party system, which emerged from the ratification debates over the Constitution and was firmly in place by the late 1790s.

Gary Johnson won elections for governor twice in New Mexico, in 1994 and 1998. Both times he ran as a Republican. He first entered into presidential politics as a Republican, before dropping out and then seeking the Libertarian party nomination. He may be frustrated that he was unable to rise in Republican politics and that the Libertarian Party lacks sufficient popular support to elect either governors or presidents. But none of that is the fault of the constitutional process—created by the American Founders—that we use to elect the President of the United States.

Photo by Gage Skidmore