AUGUSTA, Maine — Earlier this month, libertarians in Maine sued the state in their continuing bid to become the state’s fourth officially recognized political party.

The Libertarian Party of Maine Inc., a Brunswick-based nonprofit organization, said it enrolled nearly 6,500 members in 2015, far eclipsing the threshold of 5,000 to take a first step toward party formation. The secretary of state’s elections division, however, could verify only about 4,500 of those enrollees and, as a result, rejected the libertarians’ bid.

Maine already has three established political parties — Republicans, Democrats and Green Independents — and could be on the cusp of a fourth if the Libertarians’ lawsuit in U.S. District Court succeeds.

Why does it matter?

Libertarians would have a home.

Not only would candidates in Maine partisan elections be able to run as Libertarians, registered Libertarian voters also would find it easier to support a national Libertarian Party candidate. Office seekers with libertarian ideologies would not have to align with a party that does not fully share their views. Further, having the party structure in place would allow libertarians to tap national party fundraising mechanisms that Democrats and Republicans use to raise millions of dollars each year to support candidates.

A recognized Libertarian Party would also make it easier for libertarian candidates to qualify for the ballot than registering as independents, because Maine law forces independents to gather far more signatures than party candidates. Independent gubernatorial candidates, for example, must collect at least 4,000 signatures, compared with 2,000 for party candidates. And obviously, an independent candidate is at an organizational disadvantage when it comes to fundraising and signature gathering

In Maine, a Libertarian Party could pull voters away from the GOP, with whom most of the state’s libertarians align. Some libertarians quit the GOP to become unenrolled voters after the 2012 conflict over national convention delegates pledged to Ron Paul. The remaining libertarian Republicans compete with the few remaining moderates and social conservatives for control of the party, and a further exodus would change that calculus and shrink the Republicans’ base in Maine.

Any third party that takes even a modest number of seats in the Legislature could wield considerable political power.

In recent years, Republicans and Democrats traded legislative majorities. The balance of power has been determined by a handful of seats in both the House and the Senate. A bloc of as few as eight to 10 Greens and Libertarians could wield disproportionately large influence in budget-writing and a legislative process increasingly dependent on garnering two-thirds majorities.

There are currently four independents in the House of Representatives, but three of them almost always vote with Democrats. The Maine Green Independent Party, which formed in 1984 and achieved its current ballot status in 1998, currently has no representatives in the Legislature.

Even with no one in office, a party has its effect.

Topsham resident John Rensenbrink, a retired Bowdoin College political scientist who founded the Maine Green Party, said party structure gives Greens a platform from which to participate in political conversations on key issues. Rensenbrink said established party status also promotes sustained growth and recognition, which makes it easier to appeal to voters seeking an alternative to partisan gridlock.

“It just helps the voters of Maine to have a choice and to know that they have a choice,” he said. “We continue to get candidates and sometimes we get pretty close. We don’t feel like we’re a threat but the Democrats probably do and I think in some ways the Republicans will feel the threat when the libertarians get their due. I think that’s healthy because it helps keep those parties on their mettle.”

But attaching to a third or fourth party in Maine comes with liabilities. Green or Libertarian candidates could be seen as spoilers for Republicans or Democrats — or at least be cast that way by their opponents, which in recent years has been a potent and often-used argument by major parties to dissuade voters from casting ballots for third-party challengers they dismiss as spoilers. More independent candidates — including some with platforms similar to the Greens’ — have been elected to the Legislature in recent years than Greens.

What are the chances?

It’s arguably easier now to form a new party in Maine than it used to be.

There are two ways to form a political party in Maine. The old way, which is still in place, required that a party’s candidate for governor or president garner at least 5 percent of all votes in a general election. That’s how the Green Independent Party won official status in 1998, when gubernatorial candidate Pat LaMarche received 6.8 percent of the vote.

In 2013, the Legislature established a second way to found a party in Maine, which is the method the libertarians are trying to use. It involves enrolling at least 5,000 voters in the proposed party — and for the state to verify that they are valid voters.

In either case, the party maintains its status by hosting caucuses in every general election year in at least 14 counties; holding a state convention; and having at least 10,000 enrolled members cast ballots.

“That law actually made it easier to become a new political party,” said Jorge Maderal of Brunswick, chairman of the Libertarian Party of Maine Inc. “We thought this was our opportunity. We’ve been trying to organize here in Maine since 2010.”

There’s a touch of irony in the fact that libertarians, who believe in personal freedom and less government intrusion, must clear bureaucratic hurdles to form a party.

“We would love not to have these obstacles in our way but it’s something we have to overcome,” Maderal said. “The general populous is going to see this overregulation and stamping down of different ideologies for what it is. If anything, this will cause more people to be sympathetic to our cause.”

What about independents?

Aren’t Maine’s independents a de facto party?

No, though there are more independents than Democrats or Republicans. Maine’s unenrolled or independent voters comprise more than 37 percent of the electorate, compared to 31 percent who are registered Democrats, 27 percent who are Republicans and 4 percent who are Greens.

Though independent voters decide every statewide election in Maine and probably a lot of the legislative ones, their sway in the political process at the State House is diminished by the dominance of the established parties.

They’re independent for a reason.

Independents don’t enroll in a party for a range of reasons, most of them probably related to a distaste for two-party politics or the fact that their views straddle the political spectrum.

Newburgh resident Vic Berardelli, a long-time conservative political strategist in Maine who also is a Bangor Daily News contributor, said today’s polarized political climate increases the number of voters who don’t want to be aligned with either party. Berardelli, who quit the Maine Republican Party in February 2015, cites himself as an example.

“They don’t want to get caught up in that party loyalty, toe the line, follow to the letter, so they stay unenrolled,” said Berardelli, who was once chairman of the Maine Republican Liberty Caucus. “If they prefer the candidate that the party presents to them, they’ll vote for that candidate, but they just don’t want to be involved in that kind of internal purity test.”

The establishment of a new party is an uphill battle.

Maderal said he believes the two major parties do everything they can to keep libertarians off the political map and that he’s somewhat pessimistic about his group’s chances in court.

“In a way, it’s really kicking the party down and making sure we have no headway,” he said.

Rensenbrink agreed.

“The Republicans and Democrats will tolerate an independent from time to time, but they will not easily accept the existence of a real, genuine, platform-based, serious political party in the race,” he said. “It’s good to say, ‘Yeah, third parties are wonderful,’ but the reason why third parties are so important is that it livens up the system. It gives more people a voice and it gives more people votes.”


Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.