Arkansas voters this November will be seeing a lot of “L’s” on their ballot.
That’s because in addition to Republicans and Democrats, more than 50 Libertarians were nominated at the party’s convention Saturday.
Arkansas’ only viable third party will contest races for governor, U.S. Senate, three U.S. House seats, 39 state legislative seats, and a number of local races, assuming every candidate nominated Saturday actually runs. The filing period opened today and continues through noon March 1.
A lot of the interest came after Ricky Harrington received 33.55% of the vote in a two-person race against Sen. Tom Cotton in 2020. Harrington is running for governor this year.
The majority of those votes almost certainly came from Democrats who don’t support Cotton. Their candidate dropped out hours after the filing period ended, so they had nowhere else to go.
But Harrington, a soft-spoken, self-described stay-at-home dad, also proved to be a decent candidate. He acquitted himself well in the Arkansas PBS “debate,” which Cotton skipped, and he raised almost $80,000 for his campaign. That’s a lot for a third party candidate.
The party’s executive director, Dr. Michael Pakko, said Harrington attracted national attention in Libertarian circles. This year, a political action committee mailed a letter to party members urging them to “run with Ricky.”
“The idea was to get people to sign up to run on the same ticket with Ricky Harrington, and a remarkable number of people responded to that appeal,” Pakko said.
“Many people who were here today, they were asked, why did you decide to run for office? The answer was, ‘Well, first of all, I got the letter asking me to.’ And then they went on to say why they decided that was a good idea to do.”
Libertarians consider most government actions to be acts of aggression and force.
They prefer individual choice and voluntary associations. They support cutting taxes and government spending. They also support a hands-off approach on social issues, so most Libertarians are pro-choice on abortion and favor marijuana legalization. Some Libertarians are full-fledged anarchists.
Harrington, a former Democrat, is the closest thing to a “moderate” the party has. As governor, he would establish more accountability for law enforcement officers. He supports legalizing marijuana and would offer clemencies on a case-by-case basis for individuals convicted only of nonviolent possession.
He favors more competition in health care and more choice in education. He said Gov. Asa Hutchinson has done “the best he could” responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.
As governor, he said he would not close businesses in a pandemic and would encourage people to wear masks rather than mandating it.
Harrington said his goal is to win. A more realistic and immediate goal would be receiving 3% of the vote. The party then would not have to collect signatures to appear on the 2024 ballot. Until then, Arkansas law considers Libertarians a “new” party.
As an aside, a law passed in 2019 hiked the required number of signatures third parties must collect from 10,000 to 3% of the number of voters in the last governor’s race. That’s almost 26,750 signatures. Libertarians turned in 12,000 verified signatures this year, but they’re able to appear on the ballot, so far, because a judge has issued an injunction against that law.
Assuming they’re on the ballot, Libertarians face a steep uphill climb. Despite what many Americans say, many actually like government – when it’s providing them a service they want, and when it’s enforcing a value that’s important to them.
Libertarians would take much of that away. In many ways, the American political system structurally makes it hard for “new” parties to compete.
So why have them? Because they let candidates, activists and voters stay truer to their convictions instead of settling for what they consider to be the lesser of two evils. They can draw attention to issues and nudge Republicans and Democrats in their direction.
And sometimes new parties can change things. The Republican Party was started in 1854 by anti-slavery activists. Six years later, Abraham Lincoln was elected president. The party that was new in 1854 now is known as the Grand Old Party.
Could the Libertarians win a major race in Arkansas any time soon? I don’t think so, but voters deserve choices – new ones and old ones, with more than just “R’s” and “D’s” beside their names.
Steve Brawner is a syndicated columnist published in 16 outlets in Arkansas. Email him at email@example.com . Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.