Unless you read the LP News, you probably didn’t realize that 2016 was a record-breaking year for the Libertarian Party. The national news media tuned out Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson after he suffered his “Aleppo moment,” and his poll numbers fell in the last weeks as the race tightened between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Yet he still won nearly 4.4 million votes — more than three times the previous number garnered by the Libertarian candidate in 2012.
Other third-party candidates have fared better — anyone remember George Wallace and Ross Perot? But the Libertarian Party represents a movement that is bigger and longer lasting than any one candidate. Nearly 500,000 Americans are registered as Libertarians, a new high. Nearly 1.7 million votes were cast for Libertarian candidates for the U.S. House of Representatives, also a new high. In Alaska, the Libertarian candidate won 30% of the vote, beating the Democratic candidate. Dues-paying member have passed the 20,000 mark, the highest level since 2005. (See the Libertarian Party’s take on the outcome here.)
Among other signs of progress, the Libertarian Party now has presidential ballot access in 37 states — more states than after any election in the party’s history. Ballot access means the party’s presidential candidate in 2020 will automatically qualify to run in those states without the necessity of accumulating enough signatures to qualify. The $760,000 it cost the Libertarians to get on the ballots of all 50 states this year may be pocket change to Republicans and Democrats, but it looms large for an independent party.
Libertarians made progress in Virginia, too. Libertarian Jessica Abbott won 59% of the vote in a nonpartisan race for Virginia Beach City Council. Noting that city spending has increased 90% over the past decade while median household income has remained flat, she opposed a proposed $343 million light rail project in the city. As a certified flood insurance agent, she also promised to use her expertise to help Virginia Beach cope with coastal flooding.
Another Virginia Beach Libertarian, Robert Dean, lost the race but won a healthy 41% of the vote.
Libertarians face a challenge in running a candidate for statewide office next year. Virginia has one of the toughest ballot-access laws in the country, a provision that helps cement into place the dominance of the Republican-Democratic duopoly. To become “recognized,” a party must win at least 10% of the vote in a statewide race. Democrats and Republicans have no difficulty reaching that threshhold, so Democratic and Republican candidates get free ballot access. By contrast, Libertarians (and any other independent or third-party candidate) must acquire 10,000 signatures.
As a practical matter, third-party candidates must get more than 10,000 because the signatures must be verified by state electoral authorities, and it is common for a significant percentage to be thrown out. A rule-of-thumb cost to hire signature gatherers is about $2.50 per sign-up. That translates into potential expenditures of $25,000. Again, that is pocket money for Democrats and Republicans but a hurdle for Libertarians. Robert Sarvis, who won 6.5% of the vote in the 2013 gubernatorial election, making him the most successful Libertarian Party candidate in Virginia history, spent only $220,000 on his entire campaign. (Terry McAuliffe spent $38 million.)
The movement to reform partisan gerrymandering of Virginia’s electoral districts has gained big momentum in recent years. Virginians who value increased competition in the political realm should support reform of ballot access as well.