A Monumental Election Year (or Not) For the Libertarian Party

A party official explains their case for getting ‘major party’ status in Washington.

Illustration by Marie Hausauer

It’s been a tumultuous year for Libertarians.

With many of us in the press (naively) believing there was no way traditional Republicans would get behind their party’s nominee, there was open (naive) speculation about whether Libertarian candidate and former Republican Gov. Gary Johnson could mount a dark-horse presidential candidacy. Then came Johnson’s Aleppo moment (fault) and then his inability to name a foreign leader he liked (double fault). Johnson finished with 3.2 percent of the vote nationwide.

But in Washington, Johnson made a stronger showing, notching just above, or just below, 5 percent of the vote—depending on whether you count write-in votes as part of the total. Since getting 5 percent of the vote is the threshold in Washington for gaining “major-party” status, the question over whether write-ins should be counted could lead to a lawsuit by the Libertarian Party in the event they are denied the status by the Secretary of State’s office.

Suckers for drama, we caught up with Michael Pickens, a former state director of the party who is still involved in leadership, to get the rundown.

So, to begin with, 5 percent may not seem like a great showing in an election. Can you put that figure into context for a third party? I was the state director for the Johnson campaign for 2012, and then we got 1.35 percent here in Washington—so much lower than this time around. We were expecting around 5 percent this year, with the poll numbers and just the growth in the number of activists and volunteers and donors over the last few years.

How do you explain the growth? Those billboards on I-5? There were billboards all across the state, phone calls all across the state. But the big difference between 2012 and this year is this year we had 34 Libertarian candidates running all across the state. In 2012 we had none. We started recruiting candidates back in 2014 to run for state office. In 2014 we had 12 candidates. Last year we had 16 local candidates with five wins. This year we had 34 candidates. No wins, but our candidates broke vote totals in areas we were running.

You haven’t mentioned Trump yet. How did his candidacy affect Johnson’s performance? And does that make you worried the Libertarian performance was directly tied to a single candidate? We did win some never-Trump voters. I know even the Republican candidate for governor did not endorse Trump. You had arguably the two worst candidates in the history of presidential elections. That’s obviously going to help any candidate other than the bad ones. But there were five other [third-party] candidates on the ballot people have gone to. Gary Johnson got more votes than all the other minor-party candidates combined.

It’s your contention that Johnson’s performance should qualify the Libertarian Party for “major-party” status in Washington. Can you explain what that is? What does the Libertarian Party get with major-party status? We get the Precinct Committee Officer system that the Republicans and Democrats use. That’s a huge deal for us. The next thing we get is a presidential primary in 2020—the voters in Washington state will be able to choose from all our presidential candidates before our convention, just like Republicans and Democrats do. And another thing we get is no longer will we have to collect signatures to get on the ballot.

But the state disagrees obviously, saying that with write-in ballots counted, Johnson got under 5 percent of the vote. Since 1992 the state of Washington has not counted write-in votes. This year should be no different. The write-in vote should not count unless the write-in candidate filed a write-in campaign. The Secretary of State has until December 8 to make a ruling. If Kim Wyman decides to not give us ballot access, we are prepared to move forward with a lawsuit. Precedent has already been set in how they count votes. Now, when we have worked so hard over the past 40 years to get to this mark, to get to major-party status, it is very unreasonable.

If the party continues to grow in strength, are you worried that you will essentially split the “small-government” vote in Washington and thus empower the clearly “big-government” party, the Democrats? No. If you look at their track records, the Republicans and Democrats aren’t that different. The Republicans, the problem with them, they talk about financial responsibility, but when they get elected they turn around and don’t follow through on those promises. At least with the Democrats they are honest in telling us they are going to spend more money. Pulling votes from Republicans, that doesn’t bother us one bit.

Editor’s note: The Secretary of State’s office vehemently disputes the Libertarian Party’s reading of the law, saying that write-in candidates have always been counted when determining vote percentages. “State law is clear on this,” spokesman David Ammons tells Seattle Weekly.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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