Why Does America Have A Lack Of Libertarian Representation? – OpEd


By Aaron Sobczak

Those unfamiliar with American electoral politics may be puzzled by America’s presidential elections. Recently, it seems as though most elections result in two largely unpopular candidates winning their party’s nomination, but no viable third option emerges. While the United States does allow candidates to run as independents or under third-party banners, these candidates rarely make an impact at the national level.

The reasons for this are largely found in the Constitution, but other reasons exist as well. For example, the Electoral College has made it difficult for some voters to vote for a candidate who has no shot of winning their state’s Electoral College votes. The US is unique in that voters do not vote for their desired party or candidate but for a certain slate of electors who are nominated by each candidate or party. These electors are usually bound by convention to cast their vote for their party’s candidate.

The United States was formed as a confederation of states with only a loose, overarching federal authority. Although the Federalists largely won at the constitutional convention, the Antifederalists managed to ensure that the Constitution gave the states certain powers and methods of representation. These powers and methods have largely been eroded throughout the years, but the Electoral College has stuck around. The purpose of the Electoral College was to ensure that each state of the Union had its interests valued, even if some states had a much larger population. When America was a true confederation, this made sense. This system of representation is similar to how each member of the United Nations has an equal vote—permanent members of the Security Council being more equal than others.

This method was important to many of the American founders, as the Union was not in itself a coercive organization but a method for states to voluntarily cooperate with each other, as long as each state felt equally represented. With this intent in mind, one can see the potential value of the Electoral College. Unfortunately, as most states switched to a winner-take-all method of awarding electoral votes, this method has meant that many people will refuse to vote for candidates who do not have a chance of winning their state’s popular vote.

Many states in the Union used to operate on a proportionally awarded method: a candidate would win electoral votes based on how many congressional districts they won, as well as two electoral votes if they won the statewide vote. Currently, most states award their electoral votes on a winner-take-all basis, with only Maine and Nebraska sticking to the proportional method. This method is extremely unfavorable to candidates who represent certain regions/ethnic groups or third-party and independent candidates.

In fact, an independent has not won an electoral vote since 1968 (George Wallace). Even independent candidates who perform reasonably well are unlikely to earn electoral votes, other than via faithless electors. As an example, independent candidate Ross Perot won almost 19 percent of the popular vote in 1992, but he failed to earn a single electoral vote.

Since the US is not a parliamentary or proportional system, parties and candidates do not need to seek coalition governments. This not only makes third-party and independent candidates nonviable, but also candidates representing certain policies that are less popular. With this in mind, Democratic and Republican parties usually strive to pick big-tent candidates exclusively for federal elections. This usually leaves out candidates representing less-popular ideas. Unfortunately, libertarians rarely fall into the big-tent ideology that Republicans and Democrats stick to.

While libertarians who seek a major party nomination have a chance to persuade the electorate via their party’s primary debate stage, candidates who run as a member of the Libertarian Party see even-larger problems. Not only do most states have an electoral system that strongly favors a two-party dynamic, but most states also have hurdles to make it onto their presidential ballot. Some states require a certain percentage of the electorate to sign a petition allowing a candidate on the ballot. Other states look at how a party does in a statewide election or at how many people are registered with that party at the state level. These hurdles are often costly to overcome, leading to many candidates’ absence on the ballot across the US. The presidential debates also have high requirements for allowing independent candidates to participate.

Polls usually show that a majority of the population want more parties or viable independent candidates, but this is rarely obvious on Election Day. With a distaste for one of the main candidates, many voters are unwilling to cast their vote for a less electorally viable candidate; instead, they opt for “the lesser of two evils”—that is, the candidate from the other major party. Even in states that are not traditionally competitive, many voters are simply unwilling to vote for anyone who is not a Republican or Democrat. The exact reasons are debated, but there are possible solutions that can result in a more diverse offering for Americans on Election Day.

The easiest solution would probably be to institute ranked choice voting in as many states as possible. Currently a few states use this method, and it is very new to the American electorate. This method would allow voters to rank their candidates in order of preference, with the most viable candidate taking the vote after several automatic run-off rounds. This would essentially mean that a voter could give their highest preference to their ideal candidate, while still ranking a more viable candidate above their least-favorite candidates.

Other ways could include states returning to a proportional method, allowing for candidates to compete for congressional districts as well as states. Alternatively, electoral votes could be awarded proportionally across the state, with each candidate winning the percentage of Electoral College votes corresponding to their share of the popular vote. The United States could also switch to a method that mirrors some aspects of a parliamentary government. The president could be elected by the US Congress, rather than by an electoral college. Many parliamentary systems include safeguards to ensure that minority parties and candidates receive a proportional number of seats in their chamber. This option may undermine some protections of state sovereignty, but one could argue that those protections are largely already gone.

The true reason why libertarianism is politically unpopular in the United States is much more complicated, but a change in electoral politics can solve some of its issues. Changes in electoral methods are not actually that difficult in many states. Several states switched to a form of ranked choice voting only very recently, and states regularly change their requirements for ballot access. Unfortunately, the two-party system is likely to be the norm in America until many more states change their electoral systems in a meaningful way.

  • About the author: Aaron Sobczak holds an M.A. in Public Policy with an emphasis on International Policy. He has written for various outlets, and especially enjoys researching topics related to international law, American History, and public choice. He is currently part of the Mises Institute’s apprenticeship program. Aaron lives in Lynchburg, Virginia with his wife.
  • Source: This article was published by the Mises Institute


The Mises Institute, founded in 1982, teaches the scholarship of Austrian economics, freedom, and peace. The liberal intellectual tradition of Ludwig von Mises (1881-1973) and Murray N. Rothbard (1926-1995) guides us. Accordingly, the Mises Institute seeks a profound and radical shift in the intellectual climate: away from statism and toward a private property order. The Mises Institute encourages critical historical research, and stands against political correctness.

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