If Republicans fall short of taking control of the US Senate in next week's elections, oddball activists behind quixotic third party campaigns will deserve part of the blame (or credit, if you're a liberal). At least voters in Oregon will be able to cast ballot for a worthwhile reform to prevent such anti-democratic outcomes in the future.
First, consider the very real possibility that candidates of the Libertarian Party and other right-leaning operations will drain just enough votes away from conservative, Republican nominees to hand victory to a series of embattled Democrats. In North Carolina, for instance, the Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan has never surged above 50% in her difficult re-election drive but she still leads her GOP opponent, Speaker of the State House Thom Tillis, by the narrowest of margins. Her persistent advantage stems in no small part from the presence on the ballot of a good-natured Libertarian Party nominee: 53-year-old pizza delivery man Sean Haugh. The bespectacled non-conformist gets 6-7% in most statewide polls, drawing his support from anti-Obama, smaller-government voters -- precisely the segment of the electorate that would never vote for Hagan.
Those who insist that a vote for Haugh isn't a wasted and meaningless ballot ought to confront an obvious and important question: what conceivable difference would it make if the pizza man got 7% of the vote rather than 6%? How would that distinction impact policy or politics in any way? The answer, obviously, is that the trivial showings for minor party contenders can only damage one of the major candidates, but never lend significant support to the fringe party's agenda. Quick, now: try to remember how many votes Libertarian presidential nominee Gary Johnson received in 2012. Did he receive 3% or 2% of the total popular vote? Actually, he got just under 1% -- and it would have made no difference by any political calculation had he somehow tripled that total. If however, Mitt Romney had managed to add 3% to HIS popular vote tally he would have won a majority and almost surely would have captured the White House.
The point is that a relative handful of votes to a major party candidate with whom you mostly agree can change the course of history, but that same scattering of ballots for a fringe candidate with whom you entirely agree will do nothing at all to influence events.
In this election cycle, minor party candidates are playing a role in several crucial contests, in almost all cases damaging the chances of Republicans. In the breathlessly close re-election battles for Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin and Governor Rick Scott in Florida (both in states that Barack Obama carried in 2012), Democrats hope that Libertarian contenders (Adrian Wyllie in Florida, Robert Burke in Wisconsin) will draw just enough voters away from the conservative incumbents to hand undeserved victory to the stridently liberal, Democratic challengers. In Georgia, in another race in which the candidates look to be virtually tied, an embarrassing Libertarian could easily make the difference. Democrat Michelle Nunn hopes to pick up a Republican seat in a conservative state with the help of Libertarian nominee Amanda Swofford, a para-legal and City Council member in Flowery Branch, Georgia, who, in a very tight race, could destroy the chances of David Perdue, the conservative, pro-life, pro-gun, pro-defense businessman who won the GOP nomination in a hotly contested primary.
In the last twenty years, Libertarians and other fringe candidates have cost Republicans at least 12 senate seats around the country. Consider the crucial contest in Washington state in 2000, where the uber-liberal Maria Cantwell edged the incumbent Republican senator Slade Gorton by a margin of 48.7% to 48.6%. Her victory gave Al Gore's Democrats a tie in the battle for Senate control, setting the stage for Vermont Senator "Jumpin' Jim" Jeffords to switch parties and install the loathsome Harry Reid as majority leader. Meanwhile, Cantwell's advantage on election day amounted to a mere 2,129 votes, of more than 2.4 million cast, in a race that featured a no-name Libertarian on the ballot, one Jeff Jared, who scored 64,734 votes (2.6%) In other words, this Libertarian "protest" candidate won 30 times more votes than the microscopic margin that gave Democrats their Senate control (and enthroned Maria Cantwell on a seemingly permanent basis). Can anyone name a single achievement of the Jeff Jared Libertarian campaign OTHER than securing victory for the Democrats?
With these disasters in mind, voters in Oregon can take a crucial step by supporting this year's Measure 90 and avoiding such doleful results in the future. If the initiative passes on November 4,, Oregon will join the other Pacific Coast states (California and Washington) in adopting a top two primary system. Rather than separating voters and candidates according to party identification in the primary, all candidates will appear together on a single primary ballot. If a contender wishes to identify himself as Republican, or Democrat, or Libertarian, or Flat Earth Party member, he or she may do so. All voters receive the same ballot - no separate ballots for Democrats and Republicans and fringe party loyalists. On primary day, officials will tally the votes among all disparate candidates and the top two - and only the top two - will proceed to the general election. In most cases, of course, those top two will include one Republican and one Democrat but if a Libertarian runs an unusually strong race, that candidate might finish in the top two and make it to the general election campaign. As one of the two finalists, a minor party candidate might actually win -- a novelty for parties like the Libertarians and the Greens, who have never elected anyone to any significant office, despite more than three decades of trying.
in any event, the beauty of the top two primary is that it avoids outcomes where, say, conservatives clearly outvote liberals (as in the Washington state election of 2000, where the Republican and the Libertarian won a combined 51.2%) but the leftist takes the Senate seat or the governorship with a minority of the votes. Such outcomes count as undemocratic and frustrating, contributing to conservative disillusionment with the entire electoral process.
One more race might be worth a recollection in terms of making the argument against the current wrecking-ball potential of Losertarians and other fringies. In 2008, Oregon voters sent Jeff Merkley to the US Senate with just 48.9% of the vote. Senator Merkley counts as one of the most outspoken and irresponsible leftists in Congress, and hardly exemplifies the easy-going, moderate outlook of most Oregon voters. He won, however, due to the 92,565 votes (5.24%) that went to the "Constitution Party" nominee, David Brownlow. Neither Brownlow, an engineer who refused to answer election questionnaires about his own background and positions, nor his party (which later focused much attention on Obama's birth certificate), has played any discernible role in Oregon politics in the last six years. But Merkley, who looks likely to win his second term in November, spent his entire service in the Senate providing Barack Obama with a reliable liberal vote for every one of his leftist projects. Without his crucial 60th vote, Obamacare would have died in the Senate.
The good news is that top two primaries will avert such outcomes in the future. Not because they will destroy third and fourth and fifth parties; actually, they might strengthen such parties by giving them a chance for open competition in free-for-all primaries. But once two candidates have been selected for a general election, there can be no more wasted votes. If voters do the right thing and approve Measure 90, Oregonians will join other west coasters in getting a clear, clean choice in every general election with the winning candidate assured of representing a majority of all voters.