It’s an overcast Saturday morning, and Frank Gilbert, 63, and Elizabeth Russell, 29, are spending it at Little Rock’s River Market. Unlike many of the rest of the market-goers, however, they’re looking for names, not bargains.
The two are members of the Libertarian Party, and they along with other volunteers and professional canvassers are collecting 10,000 signatures to get their party on the ballot for 2014 elections. Under Arkansas law, they must do so because their party’s presidential candidate, Gary Johnson, did not receive at least 3 percent of the vote in 2012. They have 90 days to collect the signatures.
They have not always been Libertarians. Gilbert, a Grant County constable, was elected county coroner in 1994 as a Republican. Russell hung an Al Gore for president sign in her room when she was growing up. Both became disenchanted with the two major parties.
"It’s like left Twix and right Twix," Gilbert says. "You know, it’s still the same candy. If you want a real change, you’re going to have to vote for Greens or Libertarians (or) Constitutionalists. Somebody like that is your only option."
Political candidates often say they are for less government; Libertarians are for much less of it. Gilbert tells me, "If I could throw a switch and change the government overnight, I would. … I would abolish most of government."
That means he’d end Social Security and Medicare and reduce the military significantly. Libertarians as a party favor unrestricted gun rights, ending the drug war and keeping abortion legal, though Gilbert is pro-life. If the government is involved and doesn’t have to be, they want it out.
Gilbert is spending a good part of his summer trying to build the party, while Russell, pregnant with her first child, is giving up parts of her weekends. By the time their shift ends that morning, they’ve collected at most a dozen signatures, including one from a 17-year-old soon to reach voting age. One visitor is sympathetic but can’t sign for fear that Libertarian candidates would siphon votes from Republicans.
Third parties say the deck is stacked against them. Since Republicans and Democrats always reach that 3 percent threshold in presidential and gubernatorial elections in Arkansas, only third parties must spend their resources just hunting for signatures every two years. Last year, the Commission on Presidential Debates, composed entirely of Democrats and Republicans, decreed that only candidates with 15 percent support in the polls could participate. That meant only the major party candidates received that precious air time on four different nights across all the major networks. Virtually all campaign donations, nationally and in Arkansas, go to Republicans and Democrats and their allies.
Do third parties win only a fraction of the vote because they are inherently disadvantaged, or is it because not enough voters are interested in their ideas?
Clearly, it’s some combination of both. Johnson, the Libertarian presidential candidate, received 1.52 percent of the vote in Arkansas in 2012. He had a nice website and was on every ballot, so voters could have researched his positions and voted for him if they had wanted to do so. Many voters agree with the idea that elections are about picking winners, and they don’t want to "waste" their vote elsewhere. On the other hand, third parties’ arguments get drowned out because Republicans and Democrats have structural advantages and all of the money. Plus, the media ignore them.
In recent years, the United States has fought two very long wars in faraway lands, added trillions of dollars to the national debt, and handed billions of taxpayer dollars to fat cat bankers who had already run the economy into the ground. Republican and Democratic elected officials together agreed to do all of this. If ever there were a time when a third party could emerge, this would seem to be it. It hasn’t happened.
Gilbert has become discouraged before, but not this time. He sees more public interest in third parties these days, and he’s encouraged by the state party’s youthful leaders, Rodger and Jessica Paxton.
So he’ll keep collecting signatures, trying to build the party, and ignoring those who say you campaign to win, and you win by running as a Republican or Democrat.
"You do this because it’s right, not because it’s going to be successful," he says.
For 90 days, success will be measured in signatures, one a time.
Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.