Surrounded by fellow Libertarians during a 2018 election night watch party at a rented Airbnb in Fort Worth, Eric Espinoza, who was running for state Rep. Jonathan Sticklands seat, saw a Facebook message notification pop up on his phone.
Its people like you who are preventing other candidates from winning, he recalls the message saying, though he doesnt recall which candidate the sender supported.
I was like, Hey, guys, look I think I finally made an impact, Espinoza remembers saying, as he passed his phone around to others in the crowded living room.
That to me was like, OK, cool, I was able to affect something so much that somebody who knows nothing about me, and nothing about why I ran, blames me for somebody losing when its not the votes. Its not that I took votes from them; its that people didnt want to vote for that person, and they had a better option.
Republicans and Democrats alike will blame third-party candidates for siphoning votes from traditionally two-way races. Espinoza not only took votes that might have gone to Stickland, a Republican, but he had more votes than Sticklands margin of victory. Stickland beat his Democratic challenger by fewer than 1,500 votes, and Espinoza, in third place, had racked up more than 1,600.
Its still rare for third-party candidates to capture enough votes to potentially sway an outcome in the past three general elections, there have been just six such instances, according to a Hearst Newspapers analysis. But the number is growing, in a sign of tightening Texas elections.
Tight races getting tighter
As races in Texas become tighter, more third-party candidates are having an impact on elections. Over the past three general elections, there were six races in which a third-party candidate won more of the vote than the margin of victory.
Highest-Scoring Third-Party Candidate
Third-Party Candidate's Percentage of the Vote
Margin of Victory
U. S. Representative District 23 (Democrat Incumbent Democrat Pete P. Gallego and Republican Will Hurd)
U. S. Representative District 23 (Republican Incumbent Will Hurd and Democrat Pete P. Gallego)
Ruben S. Corvalan
Member, State Board of Education, District 5 (Republican Ken Mercer and
Democrat Rebecca Bell-Metereau)
State Representative District 132 (Republican Mike Schofield and Democrat Gina Calanni)
Member, State Board of Education, District 12 (Republican Pam Little and Democrat Suzanne Smith)
State Representative District 92 (Republican Incumbent Jonathan Stickland and Democrat Steve Riddell)
Eric P. Espinoza
In 2014, one third-party candidate had the potential to affect a races outcome. In 2016, there were two such races. And in 2018, there were three. (None won an election.)
Two of the six races were Republican U.S. Rep. Will Hurds victories in Congressional District 23 in 2014 and 2016. Two were State Board of Education races.
Only one of those third-party efforts could be considered an outright spoil, when Libertarian Daniel Arevalo got 1,106 votes in a Texas House race in 2018 that saw Democrat Gina Calanni beat Republican incumbent Mike Schofield by just 113 votes.
In all six races, the margin of victory was low, most at about 2 percent or less, and the third-party candidates were Libertarian.
A year after some of the most competitive state-level races in decades, Texas Republicans moved to make it easier for third-party candidates to receive and maintain a spot on the ballot. In doing so, they returned ballot access to the Green Party after it lost it following the 2016 election.
Maybe Republicans are just kind of viewing this as, either you could call it an insurance policy or maybe its a way to subject the Democrats to things theyve been subjected to on the part of the Libertarians, said Phil Paolino, an associate professor of political science at the University of North Texas who has studied the effect of third parties on presidential races.
As elections get tighter, Paolino said, you might see a few more races where third-party candidates are able to cover the margins whether itll have the effect of altering the results is a big question.
During a more competitive election, with the stakes higher, some voters may be less likely to vote for third-party candidates and risk a major partys chances, Paolino said. In the six recent cases where third-party candidates drew more votes than the margin of victory, its impossible to know the outcome if they hadnt run whether their supporters would have voted for a Democrat, Republican or skipped going to the ballot box at all, he said.
For subscribers: Texas Green Party has qualified for 2020 ballot and welcomes Democrats climate change focus
If the Republicans behind the bill were hoping to hurt their Democratic competitors by allowing Green Party candidates, who typically pull votes from Democrats, onto the ballot, that appears unlikely from a historical standpoint, at least. Green Party candidates never came close to tipping a race when they were on the ballot in 2014 and 2016.
Whitney Bilyeu, a representative to the Libertarian National Committee for a five-state Southern region that includes Texas, said she thinks Republicans and Democrats in Texas are getting very afraid of us.
When we see things like this, which we expect them to continue to happen, it is a sign that people are finally figuring out, No. 1, they have other options, Bilyeu said. And No. 2, that third option, which is us, is the only one that actually gives them what they want and are about what they claim to be about.
Bilyeu said both major parties have reacted to Libertarian candidates success by trying to limit their access to the ballot.
The Texas Green Party did not respond to requests for comment.
Another voice that is pushing ideas
Republican Rep. Drew Springer, who sponsored the bill, said he hadnt studied third-party election results until a reporter presented him with an analysis. The North Texan has run unopposed since he was first elected in 2012.
Springers bill required that third-party candidates either pay a filing fee or submit a petition to run for election, just as major party candidates are already expected to do. Filing fees range from $300 for a State Board of Education seat to $3,125 for a U.S. House race.
Prior to Springers bill passing, Republican Rep. Mayes Middleton had tried to pass a bill, HB 4416, which would have doubled the threshold for parties retaining ballot access by requiring candidates receive 10 percent of the vote in the previous general election.
An amendment Springer later added to his own bill reduced the ballot access threshold to 2 percent of the vote in the previous five general elections. Springer said its purpose was not to impact election results but to bring more voices to the table.
The biggest effect is the fact that you have another voice that is pushing ideas during the campaigning process, Springer said. Democrats and Republicans have to factor those policies into what theyre doing; I think that helps the whole process.
Of the presidential races that Paolino studied, third-party candidates did guide presidential priorities in some cases, such as in 1992, when Ross Perot took 19 percent of the vote, the most won by any independent or third-party candidate since former president Theodore Roosevelt in 1912.
Perots campaign about the dangers of the deficit did create some motivation for the two major parties to think about ways to reduce the deficit and ultimately, as we saw by the end of Clinton administration, produced a surplus, Paolino said. Its the idea that if 19 percent of the voters out there might be concerned with this, then its going to be better if we can show were doing something about it.
While Libertarians success in Texas has mostly been in local elections, Bilyeu said she still thinks the direction at the Legislature has been influenced by the partys platform, including its advocacy for marijuana legalization. The Legislature added several more conditions to the states medical marijuana program in its most recent session.
We are impacting elections one way or another, whether were covering the spread (between Democrats and Republicans) or not, because were getting messages out there that would not be heard otherwise and were putting candidates from these old parties on notice, Bilyeu said.
For subscribers: Libertarian, Green parties sue Texas over ballot requirements
The Texas Libertarian and Green parties, as well as other minor party groups and some individuals, in July sued the state over its ballot requirements, including those imposed in Springers bill.
They argue that ballot access requirements one of which calls for them to track down thousands of voters who did not cast ballots in a primary election and get their signatures create a financial barrier to candidates. A federal judge denied the states motion to dismiss the suit Monday but declined to temporarily block the requirements.
Also on Monday, House Speaker Dennis Bonnen requested that the Committee on Elections during the interim period until lawmakers next meet in 2021 monitor the bill, among others, to ensure intended legislative outcome.
Espinoza, the Libertarian candidate in the 2018 race won by Stickland, said laws that restrict third-party ballot access wont prevent them from spreading their message and getting through to voters.
You can do all the political posturing you want to, but if the public does not see the change they want, thats not going to matter, Espinoza said. Theyre going to try to vote for someone outside the two-party system whos going to do what they say theyre going to do and enhance the individual freedoms of each voter.
Data reporter Stephanie Lamm contributed to this report. email@example.com
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