Commentary & Analysis

Libertarians Revel Over Spoiled KY Election: But What’s The Real Solution?

When the results came in that Kentucky had likely elected a Democrat governor, there were a lot of reactions. (Note that Republican Matt Bevin hasn’t conceded and may contest the close election.)

(Image courtesy of Ballotpedia)

Democrats saw the likely win as proof that they were making strides in the Southern States. Republicans, on the other hand, saw the outcome as a clear “spoiler” example with the Libertarian candidate taking away votes from the Republican. 

You may also wonder how the Kentucky Libertarian Party saw the election. Turns out they agreed with the Republicans with one slight difference—they didn’t care. More accurately, they celebrated in the Republican’s misery. Just take a look at the Kentucky Libertarian Party’s Facebook post after the results came in:

“In an ideal world, we elect Libertarian candidates and advance liberty. Failing that, we push mainstream candidates towards liberty to advance the cause.

But if we can’t do those things, we are always happy to split the vote in a way that causes delicious tears. Tonight there are plenty of delicious tears from Bevin supporters.

Had Matt Bevin not ditched his liberty Lt Governor for a Mitch McConnell picked anti liberty, corrupt running mate who has tried to eliminate Kentuckians jury trial rights, had Matt Bevin not presided over a huge sales tax increase, had Matt Bevin supported any of our key issues on criminal justice reform, marijuana legalization, expanded gaming, cutting taxes, or acted with the least bit of civility, we probably would not have run a candidate. Of course, he did the opposite. And here we are.

We split the vote. And we could not be more thrilled. If our friends in the major parties do not want this to happen again, they should think about passing ranked choice voting. And supporting our issues.

In the meantime, thank you to John Hicks, Ann Cormican, Kyle Hugenberg, Josh Gilpin and Kyle Sweeney for running. Your effort was appreciated.

For the Bevin supporters, your tears are delicious.”

The Kentucky Libertarian Party makes a couple of claims here.

One is that they indeed were a spoiler. And because of policy differences with the Republican candidate, they’re fine with that—emphatically so.

Secondly, they claim that ranked-choice voting (RCV, also known as instant runoff voting) would fix the issue. By mentioning RCV at all, the Kentucky Libertarian Party implies the premise that ranked-choice voting will also be good for Libertarians.

Did the Libertarian spoil the election?

The Spoiler Effect

So, were the Libertarians right in claiming the spoiler title? Let’s see.

A spoiler is a candidate who causes another candidate to win because of their presence (via vote splitting). Also, the spoiler themselves doesn’t win.

So now our question on the spoiler issue. If the Libertarian candidate didn’t run, would enough of his votes have gone to the Republican? The Democrat led the Republican by 4,660 votes. That means that only 59% of the Libertarian voters would have needed to vote for the Republican instead of the Democrat. If some of those voters would have stayed at home, the percentage needed for the Republican goes up, but it’s still manageable.

It seems reasonably likely that the Republicans could have captured at least 59% of those Libertarian voters (or slightly more accounting for those who’d stay at home). That’s not saying that the Libertarians would have been happy about their vote. After all, they felt strongly enough to vote for a Libertarian who clearly wasn’t going to win.

Would RCV fix this spoiler issue?

The second question is whether RCV would have elected the Democrat instead. To answer that question, we must ask whether enough Libertarian voters would have ranked the Republican second. The answer is, given our earlier analysis, probably yes.

But to be clear, this small-time spoiler scenario is a problem that nearly any voting method could solve. You could throw any voting method at this problem, such as traditional runoffs, Borda Count, Condorcet methods, you name it (insert your favorite voting method here). It just so happens that we use the worst voting method there is by limiting voters to choose only one candidate. Only in such a dysfunctional scenario with our current voting method can we expect failures from such easy spoiler problems.

Would RCV help Libertarians versus other voting methods?

Libertarian Party of Kentucky Logo

Libertarians have one advantage with the current choose-one system. That’s leverage. They can threaten to spoil the election if the Republican candidate doesn’t speak well on libertarian issues. And they delivered on that threat. Under RCV, however, Libertarian voters no longer have that leverage.

By advocating for RCV, the KY Libertarians are implicitly saying that they expect to get more support at the cost of losing this leverage. But would they really get more support? Keep in mind that running as a Libertarian under RCV means that you have to be ranked higher than the major parties to show up in the tally. Since there are no other third parties currently running, that means getting ranked first. Those second and third choice votes hidden behind the major party supporters don’t show up once the Libertarian is eliminated.

Fortunately, we can see how third party support generally looks under RCV. When we look at how Libertarians would have done under RCV in the 2016 presidential election, we see that their polling numbers aren’t that different (see write-up here).

In 2016, the Libertarian presidential candidate polled at 9% under our choose-one method. When those same respondents were asked how they would vote under RCV, the number (after transfers from the Green Party to the Libertarian) rose only to 13%. Is that small difference really what Libertarians are fighting for?

Sample Approval Voting Ballot. Ballot instructions read: "Vote for ALL the candidates you approve of." The candidates listed are Black Panther, Iron Man, Captain America, Thanos, and Thor. All candidates are selected except for Thanos.

Contrast that with how the Libertarian did under another voting method, approval voting. Under approval voting, voters can pick as many candidates as they want. Most votes wins. In this same 2016 poll, the Libertarian got 21%. And no complex vote transfers or exhausted ballots were needed to see that support under approval voting.

Also, 21% will get you into debates whereas 13% won’t. Given this, Kentucky Libertarians may be disappointed if they get their wish for RCV. Sure, it’s better than our current choose-one method, but what isn’t? If you’re going to advocate for a better voting method, you may as well make it a good one. It doesn’t hurt for it to be easy either.

What about the long game?

If the Libertarian Party in Kentucky believes it has the ability to grow, then it may find itself in a position where even RCV doesn’t help. RCV does a good job of solving simple spoiler issues. It starts to struggle, however, when that third-party candidate becomes more competitive. See the video below to see why that’s the case. It has to do with the order that candidates are eliminated and how their votes transfer (yes, RCV can get complicated). Because of this, RCV can unpredictably punish you for ranking your favorite as first in these close races.

On the other hand, approval voting would always let Kentucky Libertarians support their honest favorite, even when their party is within a tight three-way race—assumedly the Libertarian Party’s dream.

It’s easy to hop on the bandwagon. But when you do so without critically thinking about what you’re doing, you can make serious mistakes. Would moving to RCV solve this simple problem with spoiler candidates who get little support? Yes, RCV would fix that.

But RCV wouldn’t give third-party candidates their accurate share of support. And RCV could jeopardize voters’ ability to rank their favorite third-party as first once that party grows in support.

Kentucky and everywhere else: you’ve got options! Approval voting is an easy one that always lets you vote your honest favorite, and it gives candidates their due in support—even when they lose. Politics, as it stands, is already dysfunctional. Let’s not make it more complicated than it has to be, particularly when there are simpler solutions that work better.

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(Header Image by Mobilus In Mobili – https://www.flickr.com/photos/mobili/23892062134/, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=57124578)