Distributed Voting for Libertarian Party Presidential Candidates: An Idea Whose Time Has Come?

By D. Frank Robinson, co-founder of the LP and founding chair of its Bylaws Committee

Historically, an American political party has not been a consistent entity; rather, it has been an ever-changing mix or coalition of individuals and groups who use the institution of a party to advance their own particular economic and social goals through a charismatic figure for President – when available.

The Libertarian Party, conceived in 1971 by David F Nolan and formally established in 1972, broke the mold of the two dominant parties. First, it was not a coalition of specialized economic factions. The founders broadly agreed on certain philosophical concepts. Second, they agreed unanimously on a statement of creed, a formal Statement of Principles (SoP). The Libertarian Party creed is non-violence in all social, economic and political activities – a purely voluntary society based on self-ownership. Third, the party founders entrenched that statement of principles with a virtually unamendable rule at their second national convention. Their SoP has not been altered in the subsequent 43 years because no coalition of partisans has marshaled the support to amend their Statement of Principles by the required 7/8th vote. Fourth, that rigid statement of doctrine and virtual unamendability has not fatally splintered the Libertarians. In 2006 an LP convention demolished the party’s platform from previous usage, but the meta-platform of the SoP remained unassailable.

In the intervening years since its founding, the LP has nominated some Presidential candidates about whom many of the members were less than enthusiastic – hardly unique for American voters. Libertarians, from experience in numerous court battles for ballot access and litigation with the Federal Election Commission, deeply distrust the two long-established political parties who control election laws. Many Libertarians suspect operatives of those older parties have engaged in various schemes to sabotage the Libertarians electoral efforts and the integrity of the party’s process to nominate its president tickets over the preferences of the general membership.

American political parties typically follow procedures devised in the 19th and early 20th centuries over a long period using caucuses, tax-payer subsidized primary elections and finally culminating in a convention of thousands of delegates bound to perfunctorily nominate the predetermined national candidates. In the era of television these conventions are essentially just an extended, highly scripted infomercial – boring.

Libertarians have emulated the old parties as best they could even if dissatisfying to the members. They need not remain in that conventional and extravagant rut.

To remedy members growing disdain, I propose to reform the LP nominating process for the national ticket with what I call “distributed voting”. In brief, I propose that state and national parties hold simultaneous conventions to vote for the candidates for the national nominations (POTUS and VP) using video conferencing with the national convention. The state affiliate party delegates in their own local conventions would see the national convention activities via video. These simultaneous local state conventions would also provide the opportunity for local media coverage not only for the national candidates but also local LP candidates. Archived video of these events combined could be a useful resource of footage for use in the general election campaigns of all candidates, but these aspects are secondary to increasing member participation and morale.

The affiliate parties need not conduct any other business during this distributed national convention except voting for the national candidates, or, a state party may even opt out of the local convention opportunity and only send delegates to the national convention. The national convention delegates only would conduct all other national LP business. My contention is this reform could give more members a more direct control of choosing presidential nominees than in previous conventions.

This proposal is not voting via the internet. Votes would be cast and counted locally at the state conventions simultaneously with national convention voting before being transmitted to the national convention officials where they would be combined with the votes of those delegates. If the LP adopts the process proposed it would certainly make the Libertarians even more unique among U S political parties in a fifth way.

The proclivity of Libertarians for political innovation has yet to produce significant electoral success, yet Libertarians have been durable as America’s third largest party for over four decades.

12 thoughts on “Distributed Voting for Libertarian Party Presidential Candidates: An Idea Whose Time Has Come?

  1. Andy Craig

    This would be an improvement, but a much more realistic and incremental option would be to have preference votes at the regular state conventions over the few months preceding the national convention. The ball could get rolling on that simply by allowing the state parties to devise their own methods for selecting, if not bound, then at least pledged delegates if they so choose. (So, for example, states that are allowed a presidential primary could be allowed to use those results if they want, or if they wanted to organize their own caucus like MN did, though for most the state convention would still be the only realistic option.) This also wouldn’t cut as much into the incentive to attend the national convention (which would still have other business to conduct, plus speakers and events, etc.)

    There’s no need to reinvent the wheel here. National nominating conventions based on presidential preference votes in the states is something we already know how to do, because the Ds and Rs have worked that way for decades.

    Having this overly-romanticized idea of all-unpledged delegates serves the interest of one group only: those who attend the convention as delegates. It comes at the cost of every other relevant group and stakeholder in this process: the broader party membership, the candidate campaigns, the national committee, the state parties. It’s a recipe for factionalism, division, allegations of backroom deals (true or not), and all the other cloak-and-dagger House-of-Cards-wannabe nonsense that has come to define the LP nomination process. Robinson is right the L.P. has long outgrown this method. It’s not a sensible way to organize the making of a decision among hundreds of thousands of active Libertarians all over the country.

    Another option, if we really wanted to cut down on the divisiveness and factionalism of the nomination process, would be to require a supermajority to be nominated instead of 50%. We’d get a lot less of candidates running against “the other half” of the party and more candidates focusing their fire on the Republicans and Democrats.

  2. paulie

    I like the present process. Keep delegates unpledged and keep them assembling together in one city. I think our process is a lot better than the Ds and Rs and, having observed a GP national convention in person with the proxy votes I like our process better than theirs as well.

  3. Jim

    I’m starting to warm to the idea of a same day national primary, at the county level in big states, rather than at a state convention. I wasn’t sure every state was competent to pull it off on the same day, but the more I think about it, the more upside I think there is. What would be the reaction from the MSM and the two major parties if it worked? It would certainly make the news. A display of organization on that scale would demand attention. And if it flopped because some states failed to get it done, well, that’s what they expected anyway. Go big or go home.


    I agree with Paulie. Except state delegates have every right (and maybe should be encouraged to) pledge themselves to a particular candidate at the time they are elected a delegate by their state. Maybe then there would only be four or five viable candidates when the convention opened, and that would encourage the dozen or so with absolutely no chance to stay out of the race and allow much more time for the delegates to question the views of the viable men and women.

  5. Andy

    March 23, 2017 at 15:58
    I agree with Paulie. Except state delegates have every right (and maybe should be encouraged to) pledge themselves to a particular candidate at the time they are elected a delegate by their state. Maybe then there would only be four or five viable candidates when the convention opened, and that would encourage the dozen or so with absolutely no chance to stay out of the race and allow much more time for the delegates to question the views of the viable men and women.”

    Who delegates plan to vote for could change between the state conventions and the national conventions, due to candidates doing different things, or due to dirt coming out on candidates, or due to new candidates jumping in the race.

  6. Steven R Linnabary

    While I am not against the proposal, I think it would be exceedingly cumbersome. Our current system is already cumbersome enough to allow them to be Knedlerized, which I have seen happen a couple of times. I can only imagine the fuckery that could take place in a glorified conference call.

    OTOH, at he ’87 OH/IN/KY convention (all 3 were same time & place) I polled the delegates. Overwhelmingly the delegates favored Means over Paul & Lewis, but the delegates that went to the national convention in Seattle favored Paul overwhelmingly.


  7. D. Frank Robinson

    I appreciate readers who have taken the time to think and reply to my proposal. I also thank readers who who have no objections or other concerns to voice. The commentators above deserve a serious reply.

    To clarify, what I propose is to enlarge the quorum for counting votes to select the LP Presidential and Vice Presidential candidates beyond those person with the four walls of the national convention meeting room.

    First, if one thinks the present system is totally acceptable, then fine.

    Second, any voting method used in collective decision making can be criticized. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arrow%27s_impossibility_theorem
    Voting is alway inferior to bilateral market choices.

    At the founding of the LP we chose to stress individual autonomy as much as a possible in choosing party functionaries – including the quadrennial national candidates. We embedded “None of the Above” (NOTA) in the Bylaws to deter attempts to reduce individual autonomy in LP voting.

    To some degree the use of fraction of the members (the quorum principle) by selecting delegates to the national convention dilutes members’ autonomy as individuals, but tradition or practicality (the two are often conflated) has influence on people’s thinking.

    Adopting a larger quorum for choosing the national candidates every four years attempts to give the autonomy of the members more authority. Perhaps, one it will be possible to reliably count the vote of every individual member to select party functionaries including the mandatory national ticket. And make no mistake, the primary reason the LP has nominees for President and Vice President is that the ballot is held hostage to all other candidates by election laws enforced at gun point by our political adversaries. In a freer electoral system no candidates would be compelled to appear on the ballot so that other candidates could appear. For example, the universal right of every voter to cast a ‘write-in’ vote including NOTA would recognized the the autonomous authority of every person who choose to vote at all.

    Enlarging the quorum (number of persons who may vote) from just those persons present in one particular place (floor of the national convention) may or may not result in more unity and better member morale concerning the compulsory national candidates. The only way to test the hypothesis is to perform the experiment. If enough member judge the experiment a failure, so be it and we can always fall back into the traditional rut reamed out for us by those ‘other guys’ holding us at gun point.

  8. D. Frank Robinson

    Reading after a second cup of coffee, I hope readers will be charitable with my grammar errors.

  9. paulie

    I think the interaction with the candidates in person and with fellow delegates from various states is an important part of the convention process. While I think Marc’s idea in a prior thread of requiring delegates to donate $1000 or 100 hours of volunteer time on top of the time, cost and opportunity cost of the convention and whatever package they may want to buy is going too far, allowing everyone to assemble in their own states has the opposite problem and the one Marc was trying to address with his proposal, that of people with very little time, money and effort committed to the party getting an equal say in selecting the national ticket.

    I’ve also had some personal experience traveling to state conventions on behalf of a candidate for the nomination who had logistical problems with making some of those trips himself. While we were able to conference him in at some events, at others there were various technical issues and I ended up having to speak myself, and I’m far from the best public speaker. The technology has gotten somewhat better in the 9 years since then but I’m still not confident in the ability of 50 state LPs to all pull it off without a hitch.

    There are some fixed costs that go with a national convention. Speaker fees, audiovisual setup, etc, etc are mostly fixed, and can be offset by various things such as delegates getting a minimum number of room-nights at the convention hotel, banquet and other fundraising, and the sale of convention packages. With many would be delegates meeting in their own states instead, the costs would be close to the same but the offsetting revenues would be lower (although fundraising could be done in conjunction with the state meetings, but it’s just not the same).

    So those are some of the main reasons I like the LP’s present convention system.

  10. D. Frank Robinson

    Paulie, thank you for your thoughtful comments.

    In so far as netting the costs of the present system against those of a dual system it cannot be assessed without a real world comparison between 2016 and 2020. Many of the activities of the national venue could be duplicated on a lesser but local scale in the states with more diverse media coverage. I think it would be advantageous to showcase local candidates at the these affiliate conventions when done in conjunction with the national convention. Local candidates have almost nothing to gain in exposure or support by attending the NatCon. They will not be allocated anything but token time to advance their campaigns in their districts. Local face time is better than no face time at all at the NatCon.

    I agree that logistics for candidates seeking the national nomination to campaign in the affiliate states is a problem for them – especially if their dominant objective is making a national media splash rather than building LP awareness in conjunction with local candidates – especially for Congressional candidates. The scale of the problem may not be so daunting in 2020. Also not all affiliate parties are certain to avail themselves of the change for 2020. Some will likely take a wait and see and only send traditional delegations to the NatCon. So be it. But 20 or 30 affiliate states parties may willing and able to participate in the enlarged participation to choose the national candidates.

    There always be a tension between varying standards for who “deserves” to have more “say” in any party structure. Generally, the most numerous small stakeholders have only the options to go along or run for the exit. In the beginning, our orientation was to avoid the tendency toward aristocracy and bureaucracy in the LP. How to do it was guess work then and a continuing problem up to today. The LP doesn’t need to cede all control to a coalition of multi-millionaires or billionaires even if such people have in their own minds the most noble intentions. LP members, like other people acclimated to the habits of elections and almost universal voting, want to see for themselves that have a real, if limited, say in the organization that claims to speak on the their behalf.

    The essential thrust of my distributed voting reform for the LP governing structure remains feasible to raise member morals with real muscle credibility. Future LP national nominees will want to have the confidence that the greater majority of the membership have taken a personal stake in their endeavor – an endeavor which for them is only an episode in their lives. The members and local candidates carry the LP on not the presidential candidates.

    Thank you, Paulie. Please continue to engage.

  11. D. Frank Robinson

    Correction: Even through I read it twice. In the 6th line from the bottom the intended word is “morale” not “morals”. Other errors can be read through without serious misunderstanding.

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