If you followed the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, you may have heard the name Gary Johnson. Johnson was the Presidential nominee for the Libertarian party, one of the many non-major parties to field a candidate. But among those smaller parties, the Libertarians and Johnson could claim something only the Democrats and Republicans could otherwise: they were on the ballot in all 50 states. That’s a rare feat — each state has its own rules, the rules are often difficult to comply with absent significant political infrastructure, and mistakes aren’t uncommon.
And if Gary Johnson wanted evidence of that, all he had to do was ask Gary Johnson, the man who failed to get onto the U.S. Presidential ballot in Michigan in 2012. In one sense, he’d be asking himself; but in another, he wouldn’t be.
Gary Johnson was the Libertarian nominee in 2012, much like he would be in 2016, but that’s not where his campaign began. Johnson was the governor of New Mexico from 1995 to 2003, serving as a member of the Republican Party. His initial foray into Presidential politics began, similarly, as a Republican; he initially sought the GOP nomination. But that dream came to a close in late 2011 when Johnson switched to the Libertarian Party. He had to undo all the work he did to get into state primaries, and on December 9, 2011, at 4:03 PM, he officially filed the paperwork to withdraw from the Republican primary in Michigan.
Unfortunately, the deadline to do so was 4 PM.
Those three minutes caused a strange problem. Johnson would appear on the GOP ballot the following February (he received about 450 votes) and, clearly, wouldn’t end up as the Republican nominee. That would impact him later. Michigan had (and still has) a “sore loser” law which reads as follows:
No person whose name was printed or placed on the primary ballots or voting machines as a candidate for nomination on the primary ballots of 1 political party shall be eligible as a candidate of any other political party at the election following that primary.
In other words, by virtue of the fact that Johnson was three minutes late in withdrawing from the GOP primary, he wasn’t eligible to appear on the Michigan ballot as the Libertarian nominee. So, the Libertarians found an alternative candidate: Gary Johnson.
Or, to make this less confusing, let’s call the alternative candidate Gary E. Johnson. He, like the Gary Johnson we’ve otherwise been talking about, was a member of the Libertarian Party (and for that matter, both Gary Johnsons have the middle initial E). But he’s not the same person. Gary E. Johnson lived in Texas, not New Mexico, had never been his state’s governor, and probably had very little interest in running for President. But he had the right name for the job.
The idea was pretty straightforward. At the Libertarian Party’s nominating convention in the summer of 2012, they nominated Governor Gary Johnson as their candidate for President and, knowing the issue with the Michigan ballot, also nominated Gary E. Johnson of Texas as a “stand-in” candidate. (And no, that’s usually not something political parties do.) In early September, Governor Johnson and the LP sued Michigan, trying to get the real candidate onto the ballot; on the same day, Gary E. Johnson and the Party also sued Michigan, attempting to get Gary E. on the ballot in case that first lawsuit failed. The idea/hope/dream was that, if Gary E. Johnson were on the ballot, people intending to vote for Governor Johnson would vote Gary E. instead, perhaps not knowing any better, and while neither Gary Johnson had any meaningful chance at ascending to the Presidency (or even getting Michigan’s 16 Electoral Votes), at least the Libertarian Party would get the maximum number of votes it could.
Both Gary Johnsons lost their lawsuits. The Governor lost his for reasons which only an election lawyer can appreciate; we’ll not bother addressing them. The stand-in lost his claim, too (pdf), but the court never ruled on whether on Gary Johnson could replace the other — the court instead noted that Gary E. Johnson waited too long to bring the lawsuit (the ballots had already gone to print). Although let’s face it, he probably would have lost that case anyway, because the whole idea is ridiculous (and, technically, Gary E. Johnson’s “name was printed or placed” on the ballot).
Not all was lost, however. The Libertarian Party convinced Michigan to count write-ins for Johnson, and more than 7,500 people wrote in his name that November. Hopefully, some of them realized the incredible opportunity and wrote in the other Gary Johnson’s name instead. It’s not like anyone would know the wiser.
From the Archives: Richard Parker: A few men with the same name and with similar fates.
Related: “The Contender: The Game of Presidential Debate,” a party game. 4.7 stars on nearly 200 reviews, so it’s probably fun, and you don’t have to be named Gary Johnson.