In a very close election, thousands of things could make the difference between winning and losing.
Sometimes it only takes one thing — like a third-party candidate.
In this historic 2020 presidential election, there is a strong case for former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenHouse Democrat threatens to vote against party's spending bill if HBCUs don't get more federal aid Overnight Defense & National Security — The Pentagon's deadly mistake Haitians stuck in Texas extend Biden's immigration woes MORE to attribute his victory to Jo Jorgensen, a professor of psychology at Clemson University and the presidential nominee of the Libertarian Party. Her vote total substantially exceeded Biden and President TrumpDonald TrumpOvernight Defense & National Security — The Pentagon's deadly mistake Overnight Energy & Environment — Presented by Climate Power — Interior returns BLM HQ to Washington France pulls ambassadors to US, Australia in protest of submarine deal MORE's margin in Arizona, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Georgia.
While Libertarian principles find support in both the Democratic and Republican parties, Libertarian Party candidates typically draw far more votes from conservative Republicans than liberal Democrats. And this year, especially, the major planks on her campaign web site were far more likely to win votes that otherwise would have gone to Trump rather than Biden.
Consider Arizona. While votes are not fully counted and reported as of this writing, Biden is around 20,000 votes ahead of Trump. Jorgensen won around 50,000 votes.
Similar numbers apply to Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, where the Libertarian Party received nearly double the vote difference between the Democrat and the Republican.
Meanwhile, Georgia is such a very close outcome that Jorgensen’s 35,000 votes (and counting) are very likely to have given Trump plenty more votes than he would need to defeat Biden there.
If these calculations are correct, Biden would not have reached 270 Electoral votes had Jorgensen not run. And Trump most likely would have been reelected.
Third-party influence on election results is not unusual and has been happening in the U.S. since before the Civil War and before there was a Republican Party.
The most notable example is a more recent one – the 2000 election.
It seems clear that Ralph Nader of the Green Party caused Al GoreAlbert (Al) Arnold GoreTrump's election fraud claims pose risks for GOP in midterms Don't 'misunderestimate' George W. Bush Why the pro-choice movement must go on the offensive MORE to lose Florida — among other states that year — which resulted in George W. Bush becoming president. Without Nader, we likely would have been spared the agony of hanging chads, butterfly ballots and a Supreme Court case that effectively elected Bush.
When Gore claimed that a vote for Nader was a vote for Bush, Nader responded that the two major-party candidates were too alike and not worth the difference — a vote for Bush or Gore, he liked to say, was a vote for Bush or Gore.
The problem with the oft-heard argument that voting for any third-party candidate in America is just wasting your vote is that the people who vote for a third-party candidate clearly preferred that candidate over the Democrat and Republican. Not helping either of the two major-party candidates might be reason enough to “waste” their vote on the third-party hopeful.
These voters also might hope to boost the third party's chances for the future, keeping them eligible and on the ballot in the next election. Or they may want to let the major parties know that the voter really cares about Libertarian – or Green Party – principles.
These are perfectly good reasons to vote for a third party. Can we imagine a way to let people express their support for third-party candidates and avoid wasting their vote?
While there may be many ways, one is already in use in the U.S. Maine uses a ranked voting procedure or instant run-off. If this were done in, say, Wisconsin, voters would choose their preferred candidate, their second choice and a third and so on. If, say, Jorgensen was a voter’s first choice but came in last, Jorgensen would be dropped and that vote would go to whichever candidate the voter ranked second.
The new votes would be tabulated and, with only two candidates remaining, whoever got the most votes would be declared the winner.
In this voting method, every state would be decided by a real majority.
John Aldrich is a political science professor at Duke University, where he specializes in American politics and behavior. He has written and contributed to several books, the most recent of which is “Change and Continuity in the 2016 and 2018 Elections.”