Here’s a personal story about my brief involvement in the Libertarian Party of Massachusetts (LPMA). I want to say up front that I value the friendship and good will of my colleagues in the party. The people I worked with were good to me and offered me a lot of encouragement. My remarks in this post don’t take away from that. I do want to make some comments about my experience, to offer encouragement to other people who participate in their state parties.
In fall 2008, I joined the board of my state’s Libertarian party and became the organization’s newsletter editor. Shortly thereafter, in Massachusetts’ November 2008 election, Bob Underwood received over three percent of the vote running as a Libertarian for the U. S. Senate. That made the state’s Libertarian party a major political party in Massachusetts.
Not so surprisingly, Massachusetts’ election laws don’t make it easy for people to get on the ballot, least of all candidates for third parties. The laws are somewhat arcane, and leave some room for interpretation. One interpretation, backed by two decades or more of history, is that being a major third party is a particularly bad place to be if you want to place your candidates on the ballot. To secure the 10,000 signatures you need for your nomination papers, you want to be a Democrat, a Republican, a minor party candidate, or an independent who might choose to run under a political designation.
After Underwood’s good showing, LPMA’s board wanted to avoid the disadvantages of being a major third party in the state. Board members discussed how to make the organization a political action group rather than a political party. Persuasive, experienced members of the board carried the day. I was a quiet member of the skeptics, those who wanted to preserve our status as a political party, whether major or minor. I had no interest in devoting time to a political action group, indistinguishable from thousands of other special interest groups out there. A political party fields candidates, and I wanted to help build the state’s Libertarian party.
The upcoming special election to fill Ted Kennedy’s seat is a good example of the current situation. Joseph Kennedy (no relation to Ted) wants to run in the special election as a Libertarian. Acting on the LPMA’s advice, however, he won’t seek nomination as a candidate of the Libertarian party. Instead he’ll seek nomination under the political designation Liberty. To get 10,000 signatures for your nomination papers, you need a lot of money to pay an organization to collect them, or a good volunteer organization to do the same. The Democrats have many contributors and volunteers in the state, and have no trouble placing their candidates on the ballot. The Republicans are much weaker, and leave many races uncontested. The Libertarians have virtually no money and no volunteer organization. Therefore a candidate like Joe Kennedy must pay professional signature collectors out of his own bank account.
To make matters worse, an independent candidate can collect signatures from any registered voter, whereas a candidate from a major political party can collect signatures only from independents and people enrolled in that party. So if you run as a major party Libertarian, the pool of people eligible to sign your nominating petition is much more restricted.
Yet it’s confusing for a candidate to run under the Liberty designation, and a mistake to abandon the opportunity offered by as candidate’s success in winning three percent of the vote. If Massachusetts Libertarians achieve major party status while short of money and volunteers, it should use the momentum to strengthen the party and make it competitive. The state badly needs a new opposition party – everyone can see that. Instead, much of the party’s energy went toward renouncing its status as a major political party, in order to work around state requirements that make it highly problematic for third parties to get off the ground!
Nomination procedures required to place your candidate’s name on the ballot are one issue. I haven’t mentioned the organization’s second major concern. By the letter of the law, the state’s oversight of a political organization’s books is more strict for a major political party. One board member said he didn’t want to go to jail because we didn’t keep our books properly. Another member would say to others at the table, do you want to go to jail? The discussion rose to higher levels, but I couldn’t stand it. The question had no answer.
My enthusiasm went way down. Given the party’s weakness, it was bound to revert to minor party status the next time it ran a candidate in a state wide election and received less than three percent of the vote. It had already gone through the minor -> major -> minor cycle when Carla Howell ran for governor about a decade ago. She received over three percent on election day, and the party went through the double change of status without upheaval or undue interference from the secretary of state’s office. I felt we should endure the same transition again. If we focused our energy on party building, we could strengthen the group’s ability to field candidates and win votes. Any organization has to trudge a lot of miles before it becomes successful, and the trudging doesn’t stop even then.
We did some party building, but far more energy went toward a debate about how to make ourselves into something other than a political party. First we had to remove the word party from our name. But if you don’t call yourself a party, what are you? If you’re a group of activists but not a party, exactly what role do you play in the state’s electoral system? When you’re a major third party, you’re playing in the big leagues even if you’re the weakest team. No baseball team would voluntarily switch to the minor leagues, no matter how many games it lost or how much the major league’s rules were stacked against it. To make yourself a political action group rather than a party, you cease to play in any league at all. You become a booster club.
More generally, when an organization changes its name, not to mention its legal status, the people involved become confused and doubtful. Even members, those closest to the group, become unsure about their own organization. What’s going on?, they ask. Why the change? Should I continue to support the new group? You depend on current members to recruit new members, but doubt makes some portion of your current members less willing to act. They’re not solidly loyal anymore. The organization starts to shrink instead of grow.
The state libertarian parties throughout the United States need loyal, enthusiastic support. The Republican party can go the way of the Whigs 160 years ago if a real alternative emerges. To quote a long-time libertarian activist, let’s put the Republican party out of its misery. Let’s keep our state libertarian parties healthy and ready to participate. Let’s make them grow, make them able – as parties – to compete successfully in elections. The potential and promise of success are both there, and we have to seize the chance.