Ballot Access Laws and the Effective Number of Political Parties

Many years ago, political scientists faced a dilemma.  How does one measure the effective number of political parties in a legislature?  While I was in Münster researching the political system of West Germany, I found that some authors declared that the country had a two-and-a-half party system.[1] [2] Why would they classify it as such?  Looking at it objectively, ever since the creation of the state after WWII, the nation had two large parties (The CDU/CSU and the SPD) which alternated control of the chancellorship and one smaller party (The FDP) which usually formed a coalition with one of the two larger parties so that the government enjoyed a majority of support in the Bundestag.  Although there were a few other minor parties in the legislature in the early days of the nation, they fell away after the 1961 general election due, in part, to the five percent national vote threshold designed to prevent parties representing fringe ideologies gaining a toehold in the legislature and then building their powerbase from that point.[3]  In the case of West Germany, the measure of a two-and-a-half party system makes sense objectively.  But, what about cases which aren’t so easy to identify, where legislatures include a multitude of parties each with varying levels of strength?  How would we define them? 

One of the first answers to this question came from Blondel in 1968.  He classified countries based upon the disparity in strength (or seats) between the two largest political parties in the legislature.  If, on average, the two largest parties had similar strength, he declared them to be two-party systems.  Examples include the United States and the U.K.  When one political party in a legislature tended to dominate over its rival, such as the CDU-CSU’s success as compared to the SPD, then they were two-and-a-half party systems.  Examples here include Germany and Canada.[4] Although a useful guide, Blondel’s system isn’t particularly precise and ignores the presence or absence of smaller parties.  For example, although it hasn’t wielded power in about a century, the Liberal Party continued to hold a handful of seats in the British Parliament while during the same time period the United States House of Representatives did not have a third party represented.  Given this difference, would it be fair then to classify them in the same category?  

Another, far more well-known, solution to define party systems came in 1979 from an article by Markku Laakso and Rein Taagepera.  In their piece, they sought to explore whether increasing the number of effective political parties in a legislature would correlate to high levels of political instability.  Therefore, they developed a formula, N=1/(Sni=1pi2), where N equals the effective number of political parties and pi2 is the square of each party’s proportion of seats in the legislature.[5] 

One of their first critics, Molinar, devised his own method claiming that if the largest party wins 49% of the seats, then it distorts the number of effective political parties proposed by Laakso and Taagepera.[6]  More recently, Golosov created his own formula, similar to the Laakso-Taagepera index, based on his opinion that the previous method creates “unrealistically high scores for party constellations in which the shares of the largest parties exceed 50 percent”.[7]  However, regardless of which method is correct, political scientists have adopted some form of an index such as Laakso-Taagepera or a variation thereof as a measure to determine the effective number of political parties in a legislative body.  As far as I’ve determined, the Laakso-Taagepera index is the most common and Shugart and Taagepera state in a later work, “This index was first proposed by Laakso and Taagepara (1979).  It has become the industry standard…even as various others have been proposed and used by some scholars.”[8]  Other notable political scientists agree.  “Such an index was developed by Markku Laakso and Rein Taagepara (1979), and it is now the index most commonly used by comparativists in political science.”[9]

There are a multitude of factors which can influence the numbers of effective political parties in a legislature besides the formula calculation.  One important consideration is the allocation of seats through district magnitude.  According to Duverger’s law, “the simple majority single-ballot system favors the two-party system.”[10]  Furthermore, Duverger’s hypothesis states that “the simple-majority system with second ballot and proportional representation favors multi-partyism.”[11]  That’s not to say that all political scientists agree with this “law”.  Some have argued that Duverger “mistook the direction of causality”[12] while others make the claim that “he focused on an unimportant variable…party systems are determined primarily by the number and type of cleavages in society, with electoral structure playing either an inconsequential, or at least a distinctly secondary and variable, role”.[13]  Thus, if one were to accept Duverger’s propositions, one could conclude that legislatures which are completely comprised of districts with a magnitude of one ought to result in number of effective political parties which is no greater than two while increasing the magnitude creates an effective number of parties which is typically equal to the number of seats in the district plus one.[14]  However, there is a growing body of research which disputes this finding such as Benoit[15] and Eggers & Fouirnaies. [16] 

As compared to Lijphart’s first edition of Patterns of Democracy, in the second edition he points to Barbados as an example of a country comprised of single member districts which results in a two-party system.[17]  However, in the island nation’s most recent election, which took place in 2018, the Barbados Labour party won every seat in the legislature.[18] One wonders if, despite this outcome, he would still classify Barbados as a two-party system or even as a democracy any longer.{\displaystyle N={\frac {1}{\sum _{i=1}^{n}p_{i}^{2}}}} N=NNNNN

According to research I have found thus far, there doesn’t seem to be much attention paid to ballot access laws in countries other than the United States.  For example, in order to stand as an independent candidate in England or Wales, a person only needs to fill out the requisite paperwork with The Electoral Commission at least nineteen days before the election and also submit the signatures of ten registered electors from the constituency. [19]  Registering a new political party in England or Wales is fairly straightforward.  They require “your completed application form, a copy of your party’s constitution, a copy of your party’s financial scheme that has been adopted by the party, and a non-refundable application fee of £ 150.[20]  In the general elections, the UK elects their MPs in single-member districts; in the 2017 contest, twenty-three political parties ran candidates with nine of them winning seats in the House of Commons.[21]

Similarly, in the mixed-member electoral system of Germany, a newly created political party only needs to submit documents signed by three members of the party’s national executive committee.  The documents required consist of the party’s platform and a list of any local branches which are associated with it.[22]  Germany explains why it is easy for new political parties to contest elections in their Political Parties Act which states:

Political parties form a constitutionally integral part of a free and democratic system of government.  Their free and continuous participation in the formation of the political will of the people enables them to discharge the public tasks which are incumbent upon them pursuant to the Basic Law (Grundgesetz) and which they undertake to fulfill to the best of their ability.[23]

The UK’s and Germany’s low barriers to political entry are symbolic of a healthy democratic system, where parties can form and contest elections with minimal effort.  These rules help explain the rapid formation and rise of the Brexit Party which was launched in April of 2019, won more seats than any other party in the May 2019 European Parliament elections, and now plans to have its candidates stand in the December 2019 general elections.[24]  Echoing a similar thought to the Germans, in An Economic Theory of Democracy, Downs identifies eight conditions under which a political system should operate in order to be considered democratic.  For our purposes, point seven is of particular interest.  “The party in power never attempts to restrict the political activities of other parties as long as they make no attempt to overthrow the government by force.”[25]

In general, the United States doesn’t hold to a philosophy supporting robust political competition.  In the U.S., there are a myriad of different requirements and regulations as there are no federal rules, each state creates its own election laws.  When it comes to Congressional elections a few states, such as Florida, do not require third-party and independent candidates to collect signatures from voters for ballot access while others, such as Georgia, require over 50,000 signatures.[26]  Why do we observe this phenomenon?  “The coalition of incumbents uses barriers to entry to place challengers at a competitive disadvantage which frees incumbents from having to strictly follow the desires of voters.”[27]  This squelching of democratic competition by the two major parties have led some to declare ballot access laws as “collusion in restraint of democracy.”[28]

For much of America’s history, there were no ballot access requirements.  “There were no ballot access laws in the U.S. before 1888, because there were no government-printed ballots before 1888.”[29] However, starting in 1929, states began to implement ballot access laws as a way to prevent the Communist Party from gaining power.[30]  Prior to this time, third parties performed reasonably well in state elections and even won seats in Congress.[31]  As Winger concludes, “In a normal two-party system, there are still significant third parties…Because of today’s strict ballot access laws, there have not been any substantial nationwide third parties in the U.S. in many decades.”[32]  This lack of competition outside of the two major parties may have disastrous repercussions for the United States as more and more Americans disaffiliate with both parties. 

Our results regarding the deteriorating effects of repeated losing on attitudes toward government suggest that long periods without alternation in power lead to progressively less positive views of the political system among those on the losing side and may well produce a breeding ground for significant change in the political system. [33]

So far in my research, I have yet to find a paper which contrasts the ballot access laws of a state with the effective number of political parties which are represented in that state’s legislature.  Although I have not discovered ballot access laws which act as a meaningful barrier to electoral competition outside of the United States, the idea requires further investigation.  Looking at the various members of the EU regarding the requirements for the formation of new political parties, Belgium has no thresholds, Bulgaria requires only fifty signatures to form a new party, the Czech Republic requires 1,000 signatures for a new party, Demark has a higher threshold for party formation of 19,769 as of 2007, in Estonia a party needs at least 1,000 members, in Ireland, a party simply needs to register without any signature or member requirements, the same holds true in Spain, France, Cyprus, and Austria, Italy requires a monetary deposit and a varying threshold for signatures, Latvia requires at least 200 party members, Lithuania 400 members,  the Netherlands requires a deposit of €450, Poland asks for 1000 signatures, Portugal 7,500, Romania and Slovakia 10,000, Finland 5,000, Sweden 1,500, and Slovenia 200.  The requirements for Hungary are unknown.[34]  All of these conditions in EU countries for ballot access are much easier than the combined requirements of all of the United States.  Given that there doesn’t seem to be any research comparing the differences between these countries, it would be a fruitful endeavor to examine in greater detail.  In addition, there are still other democratic nations to explore such as current and former members of the British Commonwealth, Latin America, and Asia. 

My theory is that the two are related and as ballot access laws become more difficult, especially when it comes to the number of voter signatures a third party or independent candidate needs to collect one in order to be listed on the ballot, one should expect to find a corresponding decline in the effective number of parties.  By contrast, as ballot laws become less restrictive, not only should the number of third party and independent candidates in a given election increase but also the number of parties represented in the legislature should go up as well.  I found evidence for this idea in my previous research regarding changes in signature requirements to the West Virginia General Assembly.[35]  Drometer & Rincke report similar results after Ohio’s ballot access law was struck down by the courts.[36]  Bolstering my findings further, Burden has found that “ballot regulations primarily affect the number of candidates on the ballot but not their vote totals.”[37]  If vote totals for third party candidates are independent of ballot access laws, but fewer restrictions lead to more choices, that increase should also lead to higher numbers of effective political parties as defined by the Laakso-Taagepera index or any sort of related measure. 

References

Anderson, Christopher et al. 2007. Losers Consent: Elections and Democratic Legitimacy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Barbados General Election Results 2018. http://www.caribbeanelections.com/bb/elections/bb_results_2018.asp (November 12, 2019).

Benoit, Kenneth. 2001. “District Magnitude, Electoral Formula, and the Number of Parties.” European Journal of Political Research39(2): 203–24.

Blondel, J. 1968. “Party Systems and Patterns of Government in Western Democracies.” Canadian Journal of Political Science1(2): 180–203.

Burden, Barry C. 2007. “Ballot Regulations and Multiparty Politics in the States.” PS: Political Science & Politics 40(04): 673.

Cox, Gary W. 2007. Making Votes Count: Strategic Coordination in the Worlds Electoral Systems. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press. 15.

Downs, Anthony. 1957. An Economic Theory of Democracy. New York, NY: Harper & Row.

Eggers, Andrew C., and Alexander B. Fouirnaies. 2014. “Representation and District Magnitude in Plurality Systems.” Electoral Studies33: 267–77.

Guidance for Candidates and Agents: Part 2a of 6 – Standing as an Independent Candidate. 2018. Guidance for candidates and agents: Part 2a of 6 – Standing as an independent candidate London: Electoral Commission.

Golosov, Grigorii V. 2009. “The Effective Number of Parties.” Party Politics 16(2): 171.

Hall, Oliver. 2005. “Death by a Thousand Signatures: The Rise of Restrictive Ballot Access Laws and the Decline of Electoral Competition in the United States.” Seattle University Law Review 29(2): 408.

Holcombe, Randall G. 1991. “Barriers to Entry and Political Competition.” Journal of Theoretical Politics 3(2): 231.

“Home.” The Brexit Party. https://www.thebrexitparty.org/ (November 13, 2019).

Huffman, Joshua. 2019. “Ballot Access Laws and the Two-Party System.” The Virginia Conservative. http://virginiaconservative.net/ballot-access-laws-and-the-two-party-system/ (November 10, 2019).

Introduction to Registering a Political Party. Introduction to registering a political party London: Electoral Commission.

Laakso, Markku, and Rein Taagepera. 1979. “‘Effective’ Number of Parties: A Measure With Application to Western Europe.” Comparative Political Studies 12(1): 3–27.

Lijphart, Arend. 1999. Patterns of Democracy: Government Forms and Performance in Thirty-Six Countries. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Lijphart, Arend. 2014. Patterns of Democracy: Government Forms and Performance in Thirty-Six Countries.  New Haven: Yale University Press.

Molinar, Juan. 1991. “Counting the Number of Parties: An Alternative Index.” American Political Science Review85(4): 1384.

Pilet, Jean-Benoit, and Emilie van. Haute. 2012. Criteria, conditions, and procedures for establishing a political party in the Member States of the European Union Criteria, Conditions, and Procedures for Establishing a Political Party in the Member States of the European Union. Luxembourg: Publications Office.

“Political Parties Act.” German Law Archive. https://germanlawarchive.iuscomp.org/?p=235 (November 13, 2019).

Riker, William H. 1982. “The Two-Party System and Duvergers Law: An Essay on the History of Political Science.” The American Political Science Review76(4): 754.

Rincke, Johannes, and Marcus Drometer. 2008. “The Impact of Ballot Access Restrictions on Electoral Competition: Evidence from a Natural Experiment.” SSRN Electronic Journal.

“Results of the 2017 General Election.” BBC News. https://www.bbc.com/news/election/2017/results (November 13, 2019).

Schönberger, Christoph. 2013. “In Praise of the Five-Percent Hurdle.” Verfassungsblog. https://verfassungsblog.de/in-praise-of-the-five-percent-hurdle/ (November 10, 2019).

Schoonmaker, Donald. 1988. “The Changing Party Scene in West Germany and the Consequences for Stable Democracy.” The Review of Politics 50(1): 49–70.

Shugart, Matthew Soberg, and Rein Taagepera. 2017. Votes from Seats: Logical Models of Electoral Systems. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

Siaroff, Alan. 2003. “Two-and-a-Half-Party Systems and the Comparative Role of the `Half.” Party Politics 9(3): 267.

Taagepera, Rein, and Bernard Grofman. 2006. “Rethinking Duvergers Law: Predicting the Effective Number of Parties in Plurality and PR Systems – Parties Minus Issues Equals One*.” European Journal of Political Research13(4): 341–52.

Winger, Richard. 1996. “How Ballot Access Laws Affect the U.S. Party System.” American Review of Politics 16.

Winger, Richard. 2019. Ballot Access News. https://ballot-access.org/ (November 13, 2019).


[1] Siaroff, Alan. 2003. “Two-and-a-Half-Party Systems and the Comparative Role of the `Half.” Party Politics 9(3): 267.

[2] Schoonmaker, Donald. 1988. “The Changing Party Scene in West Germany and the Consequences for Stable Democracy.” The Review of Politics 50(1): 49–70.

[3] Schönberger, Christoph. 2013. “In Praise of the Five-Percent Hurdle.” Verfassungsblog. https://verfassungsblog.de/in-praise-of-the-five-percent-hurdle/ (November 10, 2019).

[4] Blondel, J. 1968. “Party Systems and Patterns of Government in Western Democracies.” Canadian Journal of Political Science1(2): 180–203.

[5] Laakso, Markku, and Rein Taagepera. 1979. “‘Effective’ Number of Parties: A Measure With Application to Western Europe.” Comparative Political Studies 12(1): 3–27.

[6] Molinar, Juan. 1991. “Counting the Number of Parties: An Alternative Index.” American Political Science Review85(4): 1384.

[7] Golosov, Grigorii V. 2009. “The Effective Number of Parties.” Party Politics 16(2): 171.

[8] Shugart, Matthew Soberg, and Rein Taagepera. 2017. Votes from Seats: Logical Models of Electoral Systems. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press. 63.

[9] Lijphart, Arend. 2014. Patterns of Democracy. Cumberland: Yale University Press. 66.

[10] Riker, William H. 1982. “The Two-Party System and Duvergers Law: An Essay on the History of Political Science.” The American Political Science Review76(4): 754.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Cox, Gary W. 2007. Making Votes Count: Strategic Coordination in the Worlds Electoral Systems. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press. 15.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Taagepera, Rein, and Bernard Grofman. 2006. “Rethinking Duvergers Law: Predicting the Effective Number of Parties in Plurality and PR Systems – Parties Minus Issues Equals One*.” European Journal of Political Research13(4): 341–52.

[15] Benoit, Kenneth. 2001. “District Magnitude, Electoral Formula, and the Number of Parties.” European Journal of Political Research39(2): 203–24.

[16] Eggers, Andrew C., and Alexander B. Fouirnaies. 2014. “Representation and District Magnitude in Plurality Systems.” Electoral Studies33: 267–77.

[17] Lijphart, Arend. 2014. Patterns of Democracy. Cumberland: Yale University Press.

[18] Barbados General Election Results 2018. http://www.caribbeanelections.com/bb/elections/bb_results_2018.asp (November 12, 2019).

[19] Guidance for Candidates and Agents: Part 2a of 6 – Standing as an Independent Candidate. 2018. Guidance for candidates and agents: Part 2a of 6 – Standing as an independent candidate London: Electoral Commission.

[20] Introduction to Registering a Political Party. Introduction to registering a political party London: Electoral Commission.

[21] “Results of the 2017 General Election.” BBC News. https://www.bbc.com/news/election/2017/results (November 13, 2019).

[22] Pilet, Jean-Benoit, and Emilie van. Haute. 2012. Criteria, conditions, and procedures for establishing a political party in the Member States of the European Union Criteria, Conditions, and Procedures for Establishing a Political Party in the Member States of the European Union. Luxembourg: Publications Office. 24-25.

[23] “Political Parties Act.” German Law Archive. https://germanlawarchive.iuscomp.org/?p=235 (November 13, 2019).

[24] “Home.” The Brexit Party. https://www.thebrexitparty.org/ (November 13, 2019).

[25] Downs, Anthony. 1957. An Economic Theory of Democracy. New York, NY: Harper & Row. 24.

[26] Winger, Richard. 2019. Ballot Access News. https://ballot-access.org/ (November 13, 2019).

[27] Holcombe, Randall G. 1991. “Barriers to Entry and Political Competition.” Journal of Theoretical Politics 3(2): 231.

[28] Hall, Oliver. 2005. “Death by a Thousand Signatures: The Rise of Restrictive Ballot Access Laws and the Decline of Electoral Competition in the United States.” Seattle University Law Review 29(2): 408.

[29] Winger, Richard. 1996. “How Ballot Access Laws Affect the U.S. Party System.” American Review of Politics 16: 321.

[30] Ibid. 328.

[31] Ibid. 323.

[32] Ibid. 346.

[33] Anderson, Christopher et al. 2007. Losers Consent: Elections and Democratic Legitimacy. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 187.

[34] Pilet, Jean-Benoit, and Emilie van. Haute. 2012. Criteria, conditions, and procedures for establishing a political party in the Member States of the European Union Criteria, Conditions, and Procedures for Establishing a Political Party in the Member States of the European Union. Luxembourg: Publications Office.

[35] Huffman, Joshua. 2019. “Ballot Access Laws and the Two-Party System.” The Virginia Conservative.

Ballot Access Laws and the Two-Party System
(November 10, 2019).

[36] Rincke, Johannes, and Marcus Drometer. 2008. “The Impact of Ballot Access Restrictions on Electoral Competition: Evidence from a Natural Experiment.” SSRN Electronic Journal.

[37] Burden, Barry C. 2007. “Ballot Regulations and Multiparty Politics in the States.” PS: Political Science & Politics 40(04): 673.

Do Libertarians Cost Republicans Elections?

The 2013 Virginia Gubernatorial election had the makings of a watershed election.  Although third-party or independent candidates often run for the highest office in the Commonwealth, with the exception of 2009 which featured only a Republican and a Democrat, they typically have a minimal impact.  Running through the list from the last twenty years, in 2017, the Libertarian candidate won 1.1% of the vote.  In 2005, a former Republican State Senator left his party and ran as an independent garnering 2.2% of the statewide vote.  In 2001, the Libertarian won .8% and in 1997, the Reform Party candidate picked up 1.5%.  In addition, in all of these other elections the winning candidate received over 50% of the vote so that no one could effectively argue that these third-party or independent candidates impacted the final result.[1]  But 2013 was an unusual affair in Virginia politics.

Although Ken Cuccinelli, the Republican candidate, had enjoyed a lead over his opponent earlier in the year, by mid-July Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic candidate, dominated the polls.  In addition, about a week before the November 5th contest, multiple polls had Robert Sarvis, the Libertarian candidate, at or above 10%.[2]  He achieved this result despite being excluded from every debate.[3]  Ten percent is a particularly important threshold for if a third-party candidate were to win at least 10% of the vote in a statewide contest, then the state would recognize his or her political party.  This result, in turn, would permit that political party to hold primaries at the expense of the taxpayers and would allow future candidates from that party to receive ballot access without going through the signature collection process.[4]  As a result of Sarvis’ apparent success, coupled with Cuccinelli’s falling numbers, some Republicans began to blame Libertarians for a potential loss in November.[5]  However, the simple fact was that some libertarian voters preferred the Libertarian option to the Republican.  “The 37-year-old former lawyer is proving particularly attractive to a bloc of right-leaning independents uneasy with Republican Ken Cuccinelli’s strident opposition to abortion and gay marriage.”[6]

Even though Sarvis ultimately fell short of the 10% threshold, he captured 6.6% of the vote, the highest percentage for a third-party gubernatorial candidate in the south for over forty years.[7]  In addition, his vote total of about 145,000 votes was greater than 56,000, the margin that separated the Republican and Democratic candidates.[8]  Were the claims of some Republicans correct?  Did Robert Sarvis cost the Republicans a victory in the 2013 Virginia gubernatorial election?  If he weren’t on the ballot would a sufficient number of his voters still cast their ballots for the Republican candidate to ensure Cuccinelli’s triumph?

As another example of a Libertarian candidate potentially costing Republicans a win, in the 2019 Kentucky gubernatorial election the Democratic candidate defeated the Republican incumbent by a margin of about 5,000 votes.  The Libertarian candidate picked up over 28,000 votes.[9]  After this election, the Libertarian Party claimed that they had indeed snatched victory from the Republicans.  “We are always happy to split the vote in a way that causes delicious tears.  Tonight there are plenty of tears from Bevin supporters.”[10]

But in the absence of Libertarian candidates, would most Libertarian voters cast a ballot for the Republican option?  Do Libertarian candidates take a larger percentage of what would otherwise be Republican votes?  To answer these questions, we first have to understand what ideology drives libertarians.  According to a 2012 psychology study, Libertarianism was not widely studied prior to that time.  Furthermore, as compared to liberals and conservatives, libertarians have a “stronger endorsement of individual liberty as their foremost guiding principle, and weaker endorsement of all other moral principles.”[11]  Along these same lines, libertarian ideology “rejects the idea, essential to liberalism, that political power is a public power, to be impartially exercised for the common good.”[12]

But libertarians have voted Republican in the past, often in overwhelming numbers.  For example, in the 2000 U.S. Presidential elections libertarians preferred George W. Bush over Al Gore by a margin of 72% to 20%.  However, as the Bush presidency continued policies which resulted in ballooning federal deficits, the curtailing of civil liberties, along with the expansion of government power, positions which libertarians by-in-large oppose, libertarian support for the Republican Party waned considerably.[13]  After the Bush Presidency ended, libertarians once again largely shifted into the Republican column “supporting John McCain over Barack Obama by 71 to 27 percent.”[14]  However, the Libertarian Party has been active during this time, running candidates for president in every election since 1972.  In the two aforementioned elections, it would be difficult or impossible to claim that the presence of a Libertarian candidate cost the Republican Party the election given that the Republican candidate won the election in 2000; in 2008 the Libertarian candidate won a little over half a million votes or .4% of the nationwide vote, while the Republican and Democratic candidates were separated by a margin of about 9.5 million votes.[15]  Clearly then one cannot argue that the mere presence of a Libertarian candidate spells automatic doom for the Republicans.

Even though there is scant research done on the supposed Libertarian spoiler effect, others have asked similar questions.  For example, what about candidates from other political parties in the United States?  The 1992 Presidential election was a particularly historic election where the independent Ross Perot won 18.91% of the vote, the best showing for a third-party or independent candidate in terms of overall vote total since the election of 1912.[16]  Given that Perot’s percentage of the vote was greater than the disparity between the totals of the Republican and Democratic candidates, it comes as no surprise that some Bush supporters lamented that Perot had cost them the election.[17] [18]  However, later research shows that rather than denying Bush reelection, Perot’s candidacy had the opposite effect, drawing more votes from Clinton than Bush.  In addition, many of Perot’s voters went to the polls specifically to vote for Perot; about 20% of Perot voters would not have cast a ballot if Perot were not listed as a choice, thus his candidacy substantially increased turnout.[19]

Perhaps the most widely considered spoiler in the modern era was the candidacy of Ralph Nader under the banner of the Green Party in the 2000 presidential election.  The election came down to Florida where Bush defeated Gore by a margin of about 500 votes.[20]  Although some research argues that Gore actually won the state due to the improper rejection of 50,000 overvotes, most of which would have supposedly gone to Gore[21], others point to Nader’s nearly 100,000 votes, most of which, they assert, would have gone to Gore had Nader not been on the ballot.[22]  One study claims that about 60% of the Nader voters who would have turned out even if their preferred candidate weren’t on the ballot would have voted for Gore thus handing him the presidency.[23]  In that same election, the Libertarian candidate won 16,415 votes in Florida.  If Gore had won the Sunshine State and the Electoral College, would angry Republicans have pointed to Libertarians as spoilers? 

Another aspect to consider is the idea that the two-major party candidates in essence steal votes from a third-party candidate and not the other way around.  If a voter were to cast his or her vote sincerely, then he or she would select the candidate who most aligns with his or her values.  However, given the nature of the first-past-the-post electoral system, where any vote that goes to a losing candidate is, according to some, wasted, then voters will cast their votes strategically instead, choosing between the lesser of two evils.[24]

Returning to the idea of third-party candidates in gubernatorial contests, the 1998 Minnesota Governor election featured three candidates, a Republican, a Democrat, and the Reform Party’s Jesse Ventura.  Although Ventura won the election, researchers have determined that if he were not in the race then the Republican candidate would have been elected.  Ventura was the Condorcet winner and the Democratic candidate was the Condorcet loser.  It is estimated that approximately 7% of voters would not have cast a ballot were Ventura not an option.[25] Although one could make a rather tepid argument that Ventura “stole” the election, doing so would also require one to make the claim that no one other than Republicans and Democrats ought to be allowed to run for office, an undemocratic notion antithetical to the idea of liberty which undermines the principle of the right to self-determination.

Third-party candidates can make an impact in politics outside of running for office through the mere threat of their candidacy.  Lee shows that

while two-party politics is essentially one-dimensional in that a dominant cleavage defines political conflict, third parties are often concerned with issues that are ignored by the major parties…US House members from districts under high third-party threat vote beyond the dominant dimension of major-party conflict, which is an attempt preemptively to co-opt potential third-party supporters.[26]

In addition, we do have data from third parties in other western democracies.  For example, there is the typically largest third party in the UK since the 1922 election, the Liberal Democrats, formally known as the Liberals.  Running for office has the effect of promoting policies which Liberal Democratic voters oppose.  “By contesting elections they motivate the major parties to present more extreme policies” and “by presenting its sincere center-left beliefs, the Liberal Democrats enable the Conservatives to present more extreme positions than they would present if the Liberal Democrats positioned themselves strategically.”[27]  However, these findings may not translate particularly well to the case of American Libertarians given that the party has not yet successfully elected a candidate to Congress.

Later political scientists have found other effects for third-party voters when exploring ballots cast for the New Democratic Party in Canada.  “The share of the vote received by the NDP is not only governed by the individual characteristics of voters, but also by the competitive position of the party in each constituency.”[28]  The party is “a safe repository for the sophisticated vote of dissatisfaction.”[29] But, as is the case with the Liberal Democrats in the UK, although both electoral systems consist of districts which are single-member pluralities, like the United States, both of these parties have won and continue to win seats in the national legislature.  The Libertarians in the United States haven’t won an election at the federal level though this disparity could be, in part, a result of a presidential system as opposed to a parliamentary one, or, as mentioned in my previous work, due to particularly repressive ballot access laws in the United States.

Although some politicos may argue that voting for a third-party candidate in a two-party system is essentially an irrational action, tantamount to throwing one’s vote away or that doing so results in the election of the greater of two evils as Lee (2013) suggests, Anthony Downs identifies two conditions under which voting for a third-party candidate makes sense.

A voter may support a party that today is hopeless in the belief that his support will enable it to grow and someday become a likely winner-thus giving him a wider range of selection in the future.  Also, he may temporarily support a hopeless party as a warning to some other party to change its platform if it wants his support.  Both actions are rational for people who prefer better choice-alternatives in the future to present participation in the selection of government.[30]

Returning to Republicans and Libertarians in the United States, perhaps surprisingly, some Republicans don’t like the idea of Libertarians supporting their party as they are concerned that this ideology will transform the Republican Party.  As Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) stated in 2012 while facing a libertarian challenger for the Republican nomination, “These people are not conservatives.  They’re not Republicans.  They’re radical libertarians and I’m doggone offended by it.  I despise these people.”[31]

So, what should libertarians do?  Should they support a Republican Party which is often hostile to their ideology or cast their ballots for Libertarian candidates who are unlikely to win, potentially “spoiling” elections for Republicans?  David Boaz, the executive vice-president of the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, argues that given present policy trends neither of the two major political parties is a particularly welcoming home for libertarian-minded voters unless they make a concerted effort to change.

Libertarians have yet to find a comfortable home among political parties, particularly younger libertarians. Given the anti-competitive restrictions on third parties imposed by campaign finance and ballot access laws, the two-party system is likely to survive for the foreseeable future. However, if Republicans embrace the libertarian roots of the party, they stand to gain favor among these independent-minded voters. And if Democrats move toward drug policy reform, marriage equality, withdrawal from Iraq, and fiscal responsibility, they also stand to gain. As long as neither major party is committed to liberty and limited government, libertarians will likely continue to be only weakly affiliated with either party.[32]

If the above logic is correct, then neither the Republican nor the Democratic Party ought to consider themselves the rightful owner of libertarians’ votes; they ought to refrain from calling Libertarian candidates spoilers when their candidate loses by a margin smaller than the number of voters the Libertarian candidate earns.  Nevertheless, it is an idea that needs further empirical exploration.

Resources

“2013 – Virginia Gov: Cuccinelli vs. McAuliffe vs. Sarvis.” RealClearPolitics. https://www.realclearpolitics.com/epolls/2013/governor/va/virginia_governor_cuccinelli_vs_mcauliffe_vs_sarvis-4111.html (November 30, 2019).

Adams, James, and Samuel Merrill. 2006. “Why Small, Centrist Third Parties Motivate Policy Divergence by Major Parties.” American Political Science Review 100(3): 403–17.

Berkes, Howard. 2012. “GOP-on-GOP Attacks Leave Orrin Hatch Fighting Mad,”

National Public Radio, April 12, 2012, http://www.npr.org/blogs/itsall politics/2012/04/12/150506733/tea-party-againtargets-a-utah-gop-senator-and-orrin-hatch-isfighting-mad.

Boaz, David, and David Kirby. 2006. “The Libertarian Vote.” SSRN Electronic Journal: 1–28.

Boaz, David, and David Kirby. 2010. “The Libertarian Vote in the Age of Obama.” SSRN Electronic Journal: 1–19.

Bowler, S., and D. J. Lanoue. 1992. “Strategic and Protest Voting for Third Parties: the Case of the Canadian NDP.” Political Research Quarterly 45(2): 485–99.

Collins, Eliza. 2019. “Did Perot Spoil 1992 Election for Bush? It’s Complicated.” The Wall Street Journal. https://www.wsj.com/articles/did-perot-spoil-1992-election-for-bush-its-complicated-11562714375 (December 3, 2019).

Downs, Anthony. 1957. An Economic Theory of Democracy. New York, NY: Harper & Row.

Federal Election Commission. 2001. 2000 Presidential General Election Results. https://transition.fec.gov/pubrec/2000presgeresults.htm (December 4, 2019).

FEDERAL ELECTIONS 2008 Election Results for the U.S. President, the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives. 2009. Washington D.C.

Freeman, Samuel. 2001. “Illiberal Libertarians: Why Libertarianism Is Not a Liberal View.” Philosophy Public Affairs 30(2): 105–51.

Gilens, Martin, and Benjamin I. Page. 2014. “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens.” Perspectives on Politics 12(3): 564–81.

Hamby, Peter. 2013. “Libertarian Threatens to Spoil GOP Hopes in Virginia – CNNPolitics.” CNN. https://www.cnn.com/2013/09/27/politics/virginia-governor-sarvis-spoiler/index.html (December 4, 2019).

Herron, Michael C., and Jeffery B. Lewis. 2006. “Did Ralph Nader Spoil a Gore Presidency? A Ballot-Level Study of Green and Reform Party Voters in the 2000 Presidential Election.” Quarterly Journal of Political Science 2(3): 205–26.

Hohmann, James. 2013. “3rd Candidate Could Cost Cuccinelli.” POLITICO. https://www.politico.com/story/2013/10/virginia-governor-race-robert-sarvis-ken-cuccinelli-097591 (November 30, 2019).

Hohmann, James. 2013. “Libertarian Excluded from Va. Debate.” POLITICO. https://www.politico.com/story/2013/10/virginia-governor-debate-robert-sarvis-libertarian-098161 (November 30, 2019).

Iyer, Ravi et al. 2012. “Understanding Libertarian Morality: The Psychological Dispositions of Self-Identified Libertarians.” PLoS ONE 7(8): 1–23.

Jacobs, Ben. 2013. “Libertarian Robert Sarvis Drew Record High Votes in Virginia.” The Daily Beast. https://www.thedailybeast.com/libertarian-robert-sarvis-drew-record-high-votes-in-virginia (November 30, 2019).

Lacy, Dean, and Barry C. Burden. 1999. “The Vote-Stealing and Turnout Effects of Ross Perot in the 1992 U.S. Presidential Election.” American Journal of Political Science 43(1): 233–55.

Lacy, Dean, and Quin Monson. 2002. “The Origins and Impact of Votes for Third-Party Candidates: A Case Study of the 1998 Minnesota Gubernatorial Election.” Political Research Quarterly 55(2): 409–37.

Lee, Daniel J. 2013. “Third-Party Threat and the Dimensionality of Major-Party Roll Call Voting.” Public Choice 159(3-4): 515–31.

Leip, David. 1992 Presidential General Election Results. https://uselectionatlas.org/RESULTS/national.php?year=1992&f=0&off=0&elect=0 (December 3, 2019).

Mebane, Walter R. 2004. “The Wrong Man Is President! Overvotes in the 2000 Presidential Election in Florida.” Perspectives on Politics 2(03): 525–35.

“Ross Perot: Election Spoiler or Message Shaper?” 2019. Miller Center. https://millercenter.org/ross-perot-election-spoiler-or-message-shaper (December 3, 2019).

Rotemberg, Julio. 2009. “Attitude-Dependent Altruism, Turnout and Voting.” Public Choice: 223–44.

Scher, Bill. 2016. “Nader Elected Bush: Why We Shouldn’t Forget.” RealClearPolitics. https://www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2016/05/31/nader_elected_bush_why_we_shouldnt_forget_130715.html (December 4, 2019).

Staff, WKYT News. 2019. “Libertarian Party Says It’s Happy to Cause ‘Delicious Tears from Bevin Supporters’.” WKYT. https://www.wkyt.com/content/news/Libertarian-Party-happy-to-cause-delicious-tears-from-Bevin-supporters-564541541.html (November 30, 2019).

The New York Times. 2019. “2019 Kentucky Governor General Election Results.” The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/11/05/us/elections/results-kentucky-governor-general-election.html (November 30, 2019).

“Title 24.2. Elections.” § 24.2-101. Definitions. https://law.lis.virginia.gov/vacode/title24.2/chapter1/section24.2-101/ (November 30, 2019).

“Virginia Elections Database ” Search Elections.” Virginia Elections Database. https://historical.elections.virginia.gov/elections/search/year_from:1997/year_to:2017/office_id:3/stage:General (November 30, 2019).

“Virginia Governor – 2013 Election Results.” The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/projects/elections/2013/general/virginia/map.html (November 30, 2019).


[1] “Virginia Elections Database ” Search Elections.” Virginia Elections Database. https://historical.elections.virginia.gov/elections/search/year_from:1997/year_to:2017/office_id:3/stage:General (November 30, 2019).

[2] “2013 – Virginia Gov: Cuccinelli vs. McAuliffe vs. Sarvis.” RealClearPolitics. https://www.realclearpolitics.com/epolls/2013/governor/va/virginia_governor_cuccinelli_vs_mcauliffe_vs_sarvis-4111.html (November 30, 2019).

[3] Hohmann, James. 2013. “Libertarian Excluded from Va. Debate.” POLITICO. https://www.politico.com/story/2013/10/virginia-governor-debate-robert-sarvis-libertarian-098161 (November 30, 2019).

[4] “Title 24.2. Elections.” § 24.2-101. Definitions. https://law.lis.virginia.gov/vacode/title24.2/chapter1/section24.2-101/ (November 30, 2019).

[5] Hamby, Peter. 2013. “Libertarian Threatens to Spoil GOP Hopes in Virginia – CNNPolitics.” CNN. https://www.cnn.com/2013/09/27/politics/virginia-governor-sarvis-spoiler/index.html (December 4, 2019).

[6] Hohmann, James. 2013. “3rd Candidate Could Cost Cuccinelli.” POLITICO. https://www.politico.com/story/2013/10/virginia-governor-race-robert-sarvis-ken-cuccinelli-097591 (November 30, 2019).

[7] Jacobs, Ben. 2013. “Libertarian Robert Sarvis Drew Record High Votes in Virginia.” The Daily Beast. https://www.thedailybeast.com/libertarian-robert-sarvis-drew-record-high-votes-in-virginia (November 30, 2019).

[8] “Virginia Governor – 2013 Election Results.” The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/projects/elections/2013/general/virginia/map.html (November 30, 2019).

[9] The New York Times. 2019. “2019 Kentucky Governor General Election Results.” The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/11/05/us/elections/results-kentucky-governor-general-election.html (November 30, 2019).

[10] Staff, WKYT News. 2019. “Libertarian Party Says It’s Happy to Cause ‘Delicious Tears from Bevin Supporters’.” WKYT. https://www.wkyt.com/content/news/Libertarian-Party-happy-to-cause-delicious-tears-from-Bevin-supporters-564541541.html (November 30, 2019).

[11] Iyer, Ravi et al. 2012. “Understanding Libertarian Morality: The Psychological Dispositions of Self-Identified Libertarians.” PLoS ONE 7(8): 1.

[12] Freeman, Samuel. 2001. “Illiberal Libertarians: Why Libertarianism Is Not a Liberal View.” Philosophy Public Affairs 30(2): 107.

[13] Boaz, David, and David Kirby. 2006. “The Libertarian Vote.” SSRN Electronic Journal: 1–28.

[14] Boaz, David, and David Kirby. 2010. “The Libertarian Vote in the Age of Obama.” SSRN Electronic Journal: 1.

[15] FEDERAL ELECTIONS 2008 Election Results for the U.S. President, the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives. 2009. Washington D.C. 5.

[16] Leip, David. 1992 Presidential General Election Results. https://uselectionatlas.org/RESULTS/national.php?year=1992&f=0&off=0&elect=0 (December 3, 2019).

[17] Collins, Eliza. 2019. “Did Perot Spoil 1992 Election for Bush? It’s Complicated.” The Wall Street Journal. https://www.wsj.com/articles/did-perot-spoil-1992-election-for-bush-its-complicated-11562714375 (December 3, 2019).

[18] “Ross Perot: Election Spoiler or Message Shaper?” 2019. Miller Center. https://millercenter.org/ross-perot-election-spoiler-or-message-shaper (December 3, 2019).

[19] Lacy, Dean, and Barry C. Burden. 1999. “The Vote-Stealing and Turnout Effects of Ross Perot in the 1992 U.S. Presidential Election.” American Journal of Political Science 43(1): 233–55.

[20] Federal Election Commission. 2001. 2000 Presidential General Election Results. https://transition.fec.gov/pubrec/2000presgeresults.htm (December 4, 2019).

[21] Mebane, Walter R. 2004. “The Wrong Man Is President! Overvotes in the 2000 Presidential Election in Florida.” Perspectives on Politics 2(03): 525–35.

[22] Scher, Bill. 2016. “Nader Elected Bush: Why We Shouldn’t Forget.” RealClearPolitics. https://www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2016/05/31/nader_elected_bush_why_we_shouldnt_forget_130715.html (December 4, 2019).

[23] Herron, Michael C., and Jeffery B. Lewis. 2006. “Did Ralph Nader Spoil a Gore

Presidency? A Ballot-Level Study of Green and Reform Party Voters in the 2000 Presidential Election.” Quarterly Journal of Political Science 2(3): 205–26.

[24] Rotemberg, Julio. 2009. “Attitude-Dependent Altruism, Turnout and Voting.” Public Choice: 223–44.

[25] Lacy, Dean, and Quin Monson. 2002. “The Origins and Impact of Votes for Third-Party Candidates: A Case Study of the 1998 Minnesota Gubernatorial Election.” Political Research Quarterly 55(2): 409–37.

[26] Lee, Daniel J. 2013. “Third-Party Threat and the Dimensionality of Major-Party Roll Call Voting.” Public Choice 159(3-4): 529.

[27] Adams, James, and Samuel Merrill. 2006. “Why Small, Centrist Third Parties Motivate Policy Divergence by Major Parties.” American Political Science Review 100(3): 403–17.

[28] Bowler, S., and D. J. Lanoue. 1992. “Strategic and Protest Voting for Third Parties: the Case of the Canadian Ndp.” Political Research Quarterly 45(2): 497.

[29] Ibid. 498.

[30] Downs, Anthony. 1957. An Economic Theory of Democracy. New York, NY: Harper & Row. 49.

[31] Berkes, Howard. 2012. “GOP-on-GOP Attacks Leave Orrin Hatch Fighting Mad,” National Public Radio, April 12, 2012, http://www.npr.org/blogs/itsall politics/2012/04/12/150506733/tea-party-againtargets-a-utah-gop-senator-and-orrin-hatch-isfighting-mad.

[32] Boaz, David, and David Kirby. 2010. “The Libertarian Vote in the Age of Obama.” SSRN Electronic Journal: 19.

The Schmookler & Huffman Show (Episode LXXVI)

This morning, Andy Schmookler and I took to the radio waves to discuss politics on 550 AM, WSVA alongside host Jim Britt as we have done for approximately 6 and a half years. The topics of discussion today included the idea of the 2nd Amendment sanctuaries, which an increasing number of counties across the Commonwealth have declared themselves to be, and President Trump’s impeachment proceedings.

If you missed the show live, you can catch it here!