Voting third-party may be meaningful in the 2016 US election

We do, in fact, have public funding for Presidential elections in the United States. We have for 40 years.

In 2012, thirty-six years into the program,“approximately $91,241,400” was set aside for each major party nominee in the general election. Neither took the money.

Both Obama and Romney opted out of public financing for the generals. Presumably, they felt $91 million was not enough to win the day, and that bridling themselves to any spending limit would cost them everything.

They may have been correct. Nowadays, the race for the White House sucks up hundreds of millions, not tens of millions, from donors. According to Open Secrets, $755 million has been raised by super PACs in this cycle.

Yet the public funding program, meager as it may be, could deliver us from two-party gridlock. And soon.

If a third-party candidate garners 5% of the vote in the general election, then their party becomes eligible for federal grants in the next cycle.

Unfortunately, the FEC rules favor the status quo. Minor parties, if they hit the 5% benchmark, are not automatically eligible for monies equal to what can be used by Republicans and Democrats. Minor parties become eligible only for an amount “based on the ratio of the party’s popular vote in the preceding Presidential election to the average popular vote of the two major party candidates in that election.”

But do a little math — and a little dreaming — here. What if, in 2016, Dr. Jill Stein, presumptive nominee of the Green Party, snags 6% of the popular vote? What if Gary Johnson, presumptive nominee of the Libertarian Party, gets 10%? Assume Trump scores 39% for the GOP and Clinton claims 45% for the Democrats.

In 2012, Dr. Jill Stein claimed less than 1%, but in 2016 she might woo a sizable number of disappointed Berners with no allegiance to the Democratic brand. Stein has already reached out to Sanders and his supporters. Realistically, this is her best strategy for seizing the 5% ring.

In 2012, Gary Johnson also claimed less than 1%, but in 2016 he might pick up voters of all ages across the conservative/liberal spectrum due to the unpopularity of the two major frontrunners.

Ten percent to Johnson may be pie-in-the-sky, but the latest polls bear out the above numbers for Trump and Clinton, and if this scenario played out then the average popular vote of the two major party candidates would be 42%, making a ratio of roughly 4:1 for the two major parties versus the Libertarians , and 7:1 for the two major parties versus the Greens.

That would mean, in the 2020 election, the Libertarian Party could receive close to $25 million in public funds, and the Green Party close to $12 million.

Now a reality check: in this cycle, Stein has raised about $650,000 and Johnson about $700,000.


Voting for a third-party candidate in this election could have a hugely positive impact on the future of American politics.

The Green Party could reach far more people with $12 million than half a million — and, in accepting those millions, they would not be compromising their ethics.

The Libertarian Party could reach far more people with $25 million than three-quarters of a million — and they should be able to: nearly one in five Americans agree with libertarian ideals, with young people most likely to.

As Harry Enten writes at FiveThirtyEight, “Clinton and Trump are both more strongly disliked than any nominee at this point in the past 10 presidential cycles.” If this trend wears on, then this will be an election in which a third-party candidate actually stands a shot at getting to the magic 5%.

Granted, a slice of public funding for Libertarian or Green Presidential candidates would not instantly patch our black-and-white thinking problems, but it would be a clear win for inclusion.

Yes, if you vote for Stein or Johnson, you might have to weigh whether you really want Clinton or Trump in the Oval Office. Possibly, the gap will close between the two major candidates and the race between them might be close enough that a third-party vote would “spoil.”

But even if the person who moves into 1600 Pennsylvania is the person you fear most, you could still critically help the long game of the third and fourth most popular parties in the United States.