Staff Columnist

Iowa Libertarians have earned place on the ballot

Libertarian Party will host its first primary election in June

Iowa City, city of. Club president Randall Grant (left) and vice president Michael Lewis of the University of Iowa (U. of I.) Hawkeye Libertarian chapter sit in front of what Grant calls the group's
Iowa City, city of. Club president Randall Grant (left) and vice president Michael Lewis of the University of Iowa (U. of I.) Hawkeye Libertarian chapter sit in front of what Grant calls the group's "unofficial banner," a flag based on a Revolutionary War design. Libertarians are a political organization that defy the conventional ideological labels of American politics and place a particularly strong emphasis on the protection of individual rights and the free market system. The group supports the decriminalization of marijuana and the legislation of prostitution and other "victimless crimes." The Iowa Libertarian Party was formed in 1975. Photo November, 1979.

I see voting for the Libertarian Party a little bit like doing drugs — I don’t partake, but I don’t think the government should stand in the way.

While we haven’t made much progress ending the drug war in Iowa, voting Libertarian is becoming easier. After earning major party status in the 2016 election, Libertarians will host their first-ever primaries next month and their nominated candidates will get automatic ballot access in the general election later this year.

Until now, the Libertarians have been the second-class citizens of partisan politics in Iowa, designated a “non-party political organization,” along with the Green Party. Under Iowa law, official parties must earn at least 2 percent of the total votes cast in the preceding presidential or gubernatorial election. Gary Johnson’s 60,000 votes for president in 2016 nearly doubled that threshold.

Libertarians may have the same legal status as Republicans and Democrats, but that’s mostly on paper. They have never elected anyone to a state government office and they don’t have a 99-county infrastructure like the other two parties.

Yet party leaders say they have made important strides in Iowa before and since the 2016 election, including hosting the party’s first statewide caucuses in February and attracting more media mentions than ever before.

“You have to look at what our political system has done to us in the last few years. We’re more divided than ever. By supporting Republicans and Democrats, we’re just continuing that process,” state party chairman Joseph Howe told me last week.

They face a classic political dilemma — you can’t raise money or win votes if people don’t take you seriously, but people won’t take you seriously unless you can raise money and win votes. Libertarians hope exposure from their competitive statewide gubernatorial primary this year will grow their brand.

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Voters throughout Iowa can register as Libertarians and vote in the party’s gubernatorial primary on or before June 5. Party activists Jake Porter and Marco Battaglia will appear on the ballot. Iowa Public Television will host a debate between the two candidates this week.

Porter’s and Battaglia’s political resumes don’t come close to Gov. Kim Reynolds’ but neither do most of the Democrats seeking the state’s top job.

In fact, the two Libertarian candidates for governor have as much electoral success as four of the six Democrats running for governor. And Porter is the only candidate from any party who has run for statewide office on his own before.

What makes Democratic front-runner Fred Hubbell different from Porter and Battaglia? Lots of money and politically connected friends, two of the things Americans say they despise about our political system.

While most Iowans are frustrated at the two-party political system, few have gone so far as to change their voter registration. While the number of Iowans registered with alternative parties has more than doubled since four years ago, they remain less than 1 percent of Iowa voters. No-party voters are the largest group, with around 37 percent.

I should be a prime target for recruitment. I agree with the Libertarian platform almost entirely and I share the party’s skepticism of the partisan duopoly. Yet I remain a Republican because it still seems like the best way to promote limited government.

Fair or not, it’s convenient for the major parties to stereotype Libertarians as a kooky band of internet activists. Those of us who subscribe to libertarian ideals are creating more memes than white papers, and winning far more Facebook arguments than elections.

I have sometimes advised the Libertarian Party would be more successful if they cut their hair and tucked in their shirts. It’s only partly a joke. As the Reagan-era GOP strategist Lee Atwater said, perception is reality. Americans tend to vote for politicians who look like politicians, even as we claim to detest the whole breed.

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Porter and Battaglia get it. In my observation, they are traveling the state running substantive, issues-based campaigns.

Even if the Libertarian candidates don’t have the fundraising power and name recognition to win the governorship in 2018, they have earned a spot on the ballot and the debate stage.

• Comments: (319) 339-3156; adam.sullivan@thegazette.com

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