The Five Percent Threshold

I’ve been advocating a vote for Gary Johnson as a form of signaling, hoping that if his support reaches a level such as 5% that the Libertarian Party will begin to steal some attention away from the media gravity well that props up the Republican and Democratic parties. However, I’ve been astonished to learn that there is a real, large, tangible benefit to crossing the five percent threshold.

In the 1970’s Congress passed a handful of laws and amendments with the intention of reducing the influence of money in political campaigns (ha). You can read a general summary about the Presidential Election Campaign Fund here, and peruse the official text of the Federal Election Campaign Act and its amendments here.

There are a few rules about matching funds for primary and general elections, but the big prize is the $91 million grant to “each major party nominee” as well as another $18 million for their party conventions. It’s all funded by taxpayers who voluntarily check a checkbox to specifically divert $3 of their tax bill (note: not paying $3 more) into this election funding pot.

A “major party” is defined as a political party that got “25 percent or more of the total number of popular votes” in the last presidential election, which conveniently only includes the Republicans and Democrats right now (I had been wondering how taxpayers were on the hook for those conventions).

However, a “minor party” is a party whose previous candidate received “5 percent or more but less than 25 percent.” And guess what? Minor parties are eligible for general election funds too, in direct proportion to how far above 5% they get.

If I’m reading § 9004 (a) (3) correctly, this means that if the Libertarian Party had received 5% of the vote in 2008 instead of 0.4% so that the “average number of popular votes” of the major parties was 46.5%, then right now Johnson would have access to about $9.8 million for his campaign (but don’t quote me on that). That’s still a far cry from the hundreds of millions Obama and Romney are throwing around, but it’s also a far cry from the $350,000 Johnson raised last month. If the LP had received 6% last time, they’d be eligible for $11.8 million this time (again with the quotes).

Let me put it plainly, in case you missed it: If Gary Johnson gets 5% of the vote in 2012, the Libertarian Party has access to millions of government dollars in 2016. Wouldn’t that be deliciously ironic?

I’m actually surprised Congress set the threshold so low. Some are using it as an argument to potentially get Johnson into the debates; if the government thinks 5% candidates are worthy of taxpayer dollars, shouldn’t taxpayers get a chance to hear their message even if they’re not yet at the 15% level arbitrarily set by biased insiders?

Five percent of the vote is definitely within reach for Gary Johnson this year. His name isn’t included in polls all the time, but when it is, he’s hit 7% in New Mexico, 7% in Montana, 5% in Colorado, and 3% in Nevada, to name a few. Nationally he has hit 4% of registered voters (though only 3% of “likely voters”). Another national poll has Johnson at 6% already. They say third-party support tends to dwindle with the increasing gravity of the major parties as we get closer to Election Day, and I would not go so far as to say that it’s likely that Johnson will get 5% of the final vote.

But it’s definitely possible. Johnson is on the ballot in at least 47 states, and he’s arguably the strongest candidate the Libertarian Party has had in years, if not ever. He has demonstrated the ability to win a statewide race twice while racking up solid executive experience as a successful governor. As the Obama administration lies about Libya and the Romney campaign continues to flail, more jaded Americans may be willing to throw support to Johnson. And as many of the above polls indicate, he seems to pull equally from both major candidates, debunking the narratives that he spoils the race for one or the other.

This means that a vote for Gary Johnson is not a wasted vote as many claim. In fact, depending on your state, your single vote may do more to close the gap between Johnson and 5% than it will to close the gap between the “two evils.” If Johnson does cross the five percent threshold, your single vote literally increases the amount of funding available to the Libertarian Party to spread their message in the next cycle. This would actually make a vote for Johnson the least wasted vote possible.

Of course, there’s the sticky little matter of whether or not the Libertarian Party would want to use those funds in 2016. Johnson already seems to be accepting the much smaller matching funds, so the Libertarian Party is at least willing to embrace candidates who are willing to embrace taxpayer dollars for this purpose, though I suspect larger funds would come with some controversy. The general funds are a nice bounty if you can’t raise that much on your own, but they’re a limitation if you can, so Obama rejected the funds in 2008 and both Obama and Romney have declined them for 2012; barring significant changes in campaign financing law, the Democrats and Republicans may never take the money again. Thus, it would be no small irony if the only party with a legitimate plan for reducing the size of government was the only party taking money from the government for its campaign, and this would no doubt create a few days of amusement for the press.

However, I suspect such funding would be easily spun as a reasonable “investment” towards the goal of smaller government. Similar to Ron Paul’s “earmark controversy,” I suspect there will be passionate attacks and defenses (“the money is already set aside for this purpose – voluntarily in this case” / “yeah, but the government doesn’t actually reduce its budget for everything else, so it’s basically borrowed money”), but it’s complicated enough and involves such a relatively small amount of money that I suspect the average voter won’t really be that interested.

What would be interesting – for instance – would be a 2016 where polls about the war on drugs have continued their trends for four more years, and neither major party is still willing to budge, but there’s a third party with millions of dollars to help a majority of Americans discover how much they already agree with them.

That’s a ridiculous fantasy, I’m sure. But this could be the first election where the Libertarian Party has a legitimate chance to cross the five percent threshold and earn the opportunity to make a significant impact on America. You can add your little vote to a major candidate without really changing the tens of thousands of votes he will probably lose or win by in a state that may not even have enough electoral votes to make a difference in the final outcome. Or you can add yourself to the growing percentage of voters who want something real, something honest, something different, literally helping your tax dollars go towards making that happen.

Tell me again which one’s a wasted vote.

8 thoughts on “The Five Percent Threshold”

  1. The 5% Solution..
    People can make history with a Johnson vote.. How can “making history” be wasted?

  2. I wouldn’t really call voluntary being able to choose where the 3% goes to. It would be truly voluntary only if it was on *top* of the normal taxes.

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