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Will Libertarians Hand the Colorado Senate to the Democrats?

Copyright © 2024 by Ari Armstrong
This article originally was published on October 29, 2018, at the Colorado Freedom Report, and ported here on May 19, 2024.

Update, November 10, 2018: Never mind! Democrats crushed Republicans so badly this year that no Libertarian candidate came close to being a "spoiler." But I anticipate that the Republican Party will do better in the future, so the problem described here remains. In terms of approval voting, I support that regardless of how frequently minor-party candidates "spoil" a race.

By running candidates in several of the most-competitive Colorado Senate races, Libertarians substantially increase the odds of Democrats seizing the reins of state government and passing numerous bills that Libertarians (as well as Republicans) are sure to hate.

Democrats have a lock on the Colorado House. Democrat Jared Polis is leading his opponent in the governor's race in every poll, so it's a good bet that he'll win. That leaves the Senate, where Republicans have a single-seat advantage. If Republicans hold on to that body, they can block any Democratic bill they want. If Democrats sweep the board by winning the Senate, they can pass any bill they want.

In terms of policy, whether a single party controls state government makes a huge difference, as I review in my recent piece in the Colorado Sun.

Colorado has a 35-member Senate with four-year terms, so roughly half of state Senate seats are up for reelection every two years. This year voters will decide 17 seats.

Libertarians are running candidates in five Senate races this year—and three of those are in competitive races where the the Libertarian might peel off enough votes from the Republican to flip the outcome.

Based on 2014 results, I am counting as competitive races this year as Districts 5, 16, 20, 22, and 24. Of those, Libertarians are running in 16, 20, and 24. Here are the match-ups this year in those districts:

District 16, 2018 Election
Republican: Tim Neville (incumbent)
Democrat: Tammy Story
Libertarian: James Gilman

District 20, 2018 Election
Republican: Christine Jensen
Democrat: Jessie Danielson
Libertarian: Charles Messick

District 24, 2018 Election
Republican: Beth Martinez Humenik (incumbent)
Democrat: Faith Winter
Libertarian: Donald Osborn

One advantage for Republicans is that two of the seats are held by Republican incumbents, and the other seat is open. But obviously the presence of Libertarians in these races makes it harder for the Republicans to win.

Following are the 2014 election results for these three seats:

District 16, 2014 Results (Two-Way Race)
Republican: Tim Neville, 35,631
Democrat: Jeanne Nicholson, 33,734

District 20, 2014 (Three-Way Race)
Republican: Larry Queen, 33,104
Democrat (at the time): Cheri Jahn, 33,543
Libertarian: Chris Heismann, 5,018

District 24, 2014 (Two-Way Race)
Republican: Beth Martinez Humenik, 26,164
Democrat: Judy Solano, 25,268

To summarize, in 2014, a Libertarian ran in one of these three races—and almost certainly flipped the outcome from the Republican to the Democrat. This year Libertarians are running in all three of these races.

On the other hand, in 2014, a Libertarian ran in District 5, and this year that's a two-way race. Here are the 2014 results from that race:

District 5, 2014 (Three-Way Race)
Republican: Don Suppes, 26,225
Democrat: Kerry Donovan, 27,526
Libertarian: Lee Mulcahy, 2,374

In this case, although the Libertarian earned more votes than the difference by which the Democrat won, it is unclear whether the Libertarian "spoiled" the race. Perhaps enough of those voters would have gone to the Republican to hand him victory, and perhaps not.

My assumption is that, in most races, a Libertarian on the ballot pulls more votes from the Republican than from the Democrat and so typically hands the Democrat some advantage. But of course some people who vote for a Libertarian candidate otherwise would vote for the Democrat or not vote at all.

I endorse approval voting (letting voters vote for or "approve" more than one candidate in a race) because, not only would it eliminate the "spoiler effect," it would let voters better-express their preferences. So someone would have the choice of whether to vote for the Libertarian only, the Libertarian and the Republican, or the Libertarian and the Democrat (as examples). (On this topic, see my column in the Colorado Sun or my article from 2011.)

My focus here is on Colorado, but of course I endorse approval voting generally. Here's an interesting case from New Mexico. The Libertarian candidate for U.S. Senate, Gary Johnson, is polling a strong third, with 22 percent. Meanwhile, the Democrat has 40 percent and the Republican has 28 percent. It's unclear to me how much cross-over support there would be, under approval voting, for the Republican and the Libertarian. My guess is that, with approval voting, the Democrat would still win, because enough Libertarian voters would vote Democrat to keep him in the lead. But this is a good case in which approval voting would provide a far more accurate account of voters' preferences.

Whether or not the Democrats take the Colorado Senate this Fall, and whether or not Libertarian candidates plausibly affect the outcome of the races in question, I hope that the possibility of "spoiled" races, this Fall and every election cycle, prompts more people to take approval voting seriously. Let people vote their conscience so that we can have more confidence that elections reflect voters' preferences.

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