The Myth of the 5%: What the Libertarian Party Isn’t Telling You

Every day, leaders and members of the Libertarian Party spread the word that, “5% of the popular vote will get us automatic ballot access in 2020! Don’t throw away your vote on someone you don’t believe in! Vote for Gary Johnson to help bring down the two-party system! If you just help Gary Johnson get to 5%, you will be helping the LP be on the ballot automatically in all fifty states.” Every single day they say these things and share articles and memes about this supposed all-important 5%.

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But how important really is a 5% nationwide popular vote? Obviously, ballot access is an issue on which the Libertarian Party spends much time and many resources. Having automatic nationwide ballot access would help the Libertarian Party be able to spend potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars less on simply getting candidates onto the ballot, freeing up that money to be spent on advertisement, voter outreach, and lining Ron Nielson’s pockets.

The only problem is, nationwide ballot access simply would not be automatic. A five percent nationwide popular vote does absolutely nothing at all for ballot access, as ballot access is entirely dependent on each state’s laws. For example, in many states, ballot access is dependent on the results of a gubernatorial and/or senatorial race. In other states, ballot access is determined by votes cast in the Presidential in that state. In yet others, there are specific qualifications for major party status, and unless you are a major party per that state’s laws, a party must petition to be on the ballot.

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All the while, leaders and members of the LP continue to ignore these facts out of ignorance, out of desperation, out of anger at the system, out of trying to convince themselves or others why their protest vote might matter, out of who knows what other reasons. These people who are attempting every desperate measure to be taken seriously–such as nominating unprincipled candidates just because they have name recognition–are the very ones damaging and diminishing the credibility of the party by spreading these sorts of lies.

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Gary says that achieving 5% of the popular vote nationwide “will achieve ‘major party’ status for a third party for the first time ever.” But this is a lie. According to 26 USC §9002(6), 25% of the popular vote nationwide is needed to be declared a major party.

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There is nothing to be gained by continuing to rehash this myth. In the current political climate, with two of the most disliked major party candidates of all time, the Libertarian Party had massive potential to grow and spread the message of Liberty. Perhaps they have done the former, to an extent, but the latter is suffering greatly for a couple different reasons.

One is the watering down of principles by the party’s top ticket. Another is this constant rhetoric of many party leaders and members that the most important thing in this election cycle is to “destroy the two-party system” by getting 5% of the popular vote, so there can be three parties on the ballot in future elections. Unfortunately, both of these things do nothing to advance the party or the principles.

All that said, there is one thing that a 5% would affect. It would give the Libertarian Party minor party status, and it would give them access to the Presidential Election Campaign Fund. The Federal Election Commission established the fund, which gives qualifying parties a federal welfare check funded by the very taxation that the Libertarian Party preaches is theft. Even if the 2020 LP nominee decided to take the federal matching funds (which is a subject for a different day), it still would not guarantee ballot access, since the states each have their own laws regarding ballot access.

It is understandable that the Libertarian Party wants ballot access. It makes sense to want to bring down the two-party system that has given the American people progressively worse options. It would be nice if a measly 5% of the popular vote would do those things. But it won’t. Before they continue to spread this lie, they need to think of the long term implications if people begin, or continue, to believe it. If Gary Johnson does manage to get 5% nationwide popular vote, future activists and volunteers will not work to get ballot access if they think they already have it. Even more importantly, when people find out leaders of the Libertarian Party lied to them, why would those people then want anything to do with the LP?

With everything to lose and nothing to gain, there is simply no reason to continue telling people that their vote could help the Libertarian Party get 5% of the vote, have automatic ballot access, and break the two-party system. Instead, the Libertarian Party should simply tell the truth–why they are voting for Gary Johnson, why they should not vote for Trump or Clinton, why there is no such thing as a “lesser evil,” why libertarian principles are a better way to live. All these things are and will continue to be so much more powerful and effective than any false rhetoric could ever be.

Check back later this week for a complete breakdown of each state’s requirements for ballot access.