Austin – The loudest cheers at Libertarian Party presidential nominee Gary Earl Johnson's packed Austin dinner, the largest event so far during his swing through Texas, came when Johnson talked about a recurring problem his campaign has faced: ballot access problems.
The state of Michigan has something called a "sore loser law" that prevents candidates who lose a party primary from changing parties to run in the general election. The law rarely applies to presidential elections but Michigan is an exception.
"It's a railroad job," former New Mexico governor Johnson said offstage at Hill's Café, taking a break from posing for photos and shaking hands.
Johnson campaigned for president on the Republican ticket through 2011, but he never participated in any primaries. He withdrew from the race on December 28, five days prior to the Iowa Caucus and two weeks before polls opened in New Hampshire. Michigan didn't even hold it's primary until a full two months after Johnson decided not to run in any Republican race.
"Look, I didn't want on the ballot in Michigan in the first place. I never asked to be on the ballot. They put me on the ballot and then they said, 'For you to get off the ballot that we've put you on, unbeknownst to you, you have to fill out a document saying you don't want on the ballot,'" said former Governor Johnson.
Johnson's team found out about this shortly before the deadline and had to scramble to clear all the logistical hurdles the Wolverine State throws up to maintain party control of the primary ballot. But they fell short by three minutes. According to Johnson, Michigan declined the campaign's request to remove Johnson from the ballot because his paperwork was stamped at 4:03pm instead of 4:00pm.
Johnson was furious. He and the Michigan Libertarian Party filed a lawsuit against the state of Michigan. Johnson noted that John Anderson ran in Michigan's Republican primary before he jumped ship and ran as an independent in the state without a problem in 1980.
"Why did we have to do this in the first place? To get off the ballot that we never asked to be on?"
Enter Johnson's knight in shining armor: Gary Edward Johnson, an investor and longtime Libertarian Party activist in Texas who has run for everything from community college board to U.S. Senate but never for president. That might change if the Michigan LP's court battle fails.
For now Texas Johnson is what's known as a placeholder, somebody who holds a spot on a ballot for a third party candidate until he or she actually qualifies. Texas Johnson's place on the ballot now guarantees that a a Gary E. Johnson/Jim Gray ticket on the Libertarian line will still appear on the ballot if the lawsuit fails.
When Taos, New Mexico-based Johnson went to pick up his credentials in Las Vegas at the start of the Libertarian National Convention, he was given a name tag for a Gary Johnson. It turns out that Texas Johnson was standing behind him in line at the credentials booth. The two struck up a friendly conversation that led New Mexico Johnson and his campaign to start submitting his name to state election commissions as "Gary Johnson," so if a problem came up local state parties could put "Gary E. Johnson" on the ballot instead.
Texas Johnson, a former secretary of the LNC, was more than happy to accommodate this plan.
Two ballot access experts, Bill Hall and Richard Winger, spoke with Texas Johnson before approaching the Johnson campaign about doing something like this. The trio researched Michigan laws and determined that what they wanted to do was completely legal. Gary Sinawski, the legal counsel for the Libertarian National Committee, is involved in the Michigan fight, too.
The offices for the Michigan Libertarian Party and the Michigan Secretary of State were both closed over the weekend. In 2008 Bob Barr and Wayne Allyn Root received 23, 716 votes, or 0.47% of the vote, in Michigan.
Born in the same year as the former governor, Texas Johnson laughs about the situation he is.
If the suit fails and New Mexico Johnson is kept off the ballot he said, "I'll probably go up there."
He then rattled off arcane FEC reporting rules while recounting old campaign stories, sounding eager to get out on the trail.
While Texas Johnson was sitting far away from the stage Steve Haskett, a Libertarian with a ZZ Top beard, came over and patted him on the back.
"I hope you win the hell out of Michigan!" Haskett said.
"Why thank you very much," Texas Johnson replied.
"Now I've met two presidential candidates!"