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The Intriguing Possibility of Gary Johnson

Gaming our electoral oddities

September 2016

James Madison's system of indirect election of the President (the "Electoral College") and the 12th amendment to the US Constitution may rescue us from our current electoral dilemma.
Less than two months to the election, and a feeling of helpless horror is sinking over the US electorate: We don't have a decent, qualified presidential candidate on the ballot. Which means, next year we won't have a decent, qualified President. What we've got on the main bill is two jerks who are remarkably alike in their personal character. They're both profane, avaricious, self-serving, thin-skinned egotists whose first reaction upon being provoked is to explode and go for the jugular, before segueing to the inevitable lie or excuse. Neither is qualified for the job: Trump's main skill is leaving others holding the bag. Clinton's greatest achievement – as she called it in her book – is the Libya bombing, which Obama has called his greatest mistake. They both – like Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton – have lists of friends and enemies. Friends are rich folks who can benefit them, enemies are mainly folks with principles.

So, what to do? Even though the presidential ballot will have plenty of names to choose from, there is no doubt that the American voters will choose among the Republican and the Democratic candidates – the two avaricious egotists. But, because there are enough voters who recognize the horror of either candidate succeeding, the candidacy of the former Governor of New Mexico, Gary Johnson, is edging up toward 10% nationwide. Not enough to win, naturally, but he may gain another 5% before the election and become a factor. Here's how:

Our electoral college system works like this: Each state has as many electoral votes as the size of its congressional delegation (House and Senate together). My state of North Carolina, for example, has thirteen House districts, so with the two senators that's a congressional delegation of fifteen – that's our electoral votes. The states with the smallest population (Wyoming, Delaware, etc) have only one House representative and therefore have three electoral votes. The largest state, California, has 55 electoral votes. In 48 of our states, the candidate who wins the popular vote in the state gets all the state's electoral votes. The candidates who gets a majority of the electoral votes (270) has won the presidency. (Here's the relevant arithmetic: 435 House members + 100 senators + 3 for the District of Columbia = 538 total electoral votes. Half of that is 269.)

Now, there's not much chance that Gary Johnson will get a majority of the popular vote in any state. The electorate is not going to be that broadminded. Most voters will hold their nose and vote for their usual party. (Everyone buys into the duopoly's "voting-for-a-third-party-means-throwing-away-your-vote" myth.) Governor Johnson's opportunity lies in the states of Maine and Nebraska, where you don't have to win the whole state. In these states, the contest for electors is run district by district, so that to win one electoral vote you need to win the popular vote in one House district. Unfortunately, Maine only has two districts, and Nebraska only three. So while you don't need to win the whole state, you'd need to win a substantial portion of it. Johnson would be well advised to spend most of his time and funds in these two states.

Gary Johnson's dream scenario is that no candidate gets 270 electoral votes, and that he gets at least one. Granted, it's a long shot, and the more electoral votes Johnson gets, the better his chances to deny someone else a majority. But let's say it happens: Johnson picks up one vote in free-thinking Maine, where Mrs.Clinton would otherwise expect to get all. As a result, the final tally is Clinton 269, Trump 268, Johnson 1. No one has a majority. What happens now?

At this point, the election is over, and the selection of the president goes to the House of Representatives. This would be done on January 6, 2017 by the newly elected Congress. By the twelfth amendment to the US Constitution, the House must choose from the three candidates who got the most electoral votes in the general election, and the number of electoral votes they received doesn't matter – 1 is as good as 269. To do this, the House would hold a unique kind of vote: each state delegation – no matter how large – gets one vote, which they will determine by caucus within the delegation. A majority of the delegations (26) is needed to win. So the question isn't which party controls the House, but which party controls most state delegations. Currently the Republicans have the majority in 32 of the 50 state delegations; this may change in the new Congress, but the Reps are unlikely to have lost control, so they would be able to determine the next president. So, if this happens, how do the House Republicans feel about Mr.Trump? Mostly, they don't like him. Not one bit. They're not even convinced he's a Republican. Trump hasn't got many invitations to campaign with House members this fall. They're not running with him, they're running away from him.

You see where I'm going with this. If the House Republicans don't like Mr.Trump, and can't stand Mrs.Clinton, they'll have a third choice (but only if Mr.Johnson succeeds in getting at least one electoral vote, etc. etc.). Gary Johnson was, after all, a Republican governor, he's not obnoxious and offensive like the other two goons (even if he doesn't know what "an Aleppo" is), and it would give Congress the satisfaction of having saved the nation from disaster. And his policies? Hey, it's an emergency – and Congress is after all in charge of policy. And isn't he kinda cute in his oddball way...

OK, I'm not saying all this is likely. It's a 100-1 shot, or less. But somebody occasionally wins a lottery, somebody shoots a hole in one, the Almighty sometimes (not often enough) reaches down and helps fate along. I'm just saying, it could happen; we could get our third President Johnson.

© H. Paul Lillebo

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