The state’s process for keeping political party members enrolled is unconstitutional, a federal judge in Bangor ruled Thursday. But he declined to immediately re-enroll more than 6,000 previous members of Maine’s Libertarian party.
The ruling marked a victory for the party, which has struggled to maintain enrollment numbers in recent years. The party’s numbers are not immediately restored, but U.S. District Court Judge Lance Walker found the plaintiffs would be likely to succeed if they continued the case on its constitutional merits.
The Libertarians sued Secretary of State Matt Dunlap late last year, arguing the state’s enrollment thresholds were impossible to maintain for small parties.
State law requires new parties to enroll at least 5,000 members the year before a general election and to have at least 10,000 by the next general election. It also requires that they hold an annual state political convention. Party members are unenrolled if that enrollment threshold isn’t met.
The Libertarians argued the requirements are so burdensome that they “severely burden the constitutional rights” of voters and prevent new political parties from gaining a foothold in the state, pointing to the financial and time commitment needed to enroll members.
Walker agreed that the un-enrollment process was unconstitutional, writing that it “penalizes minor parties” by repeatedly setting them back “when they are just getting going.”
But he denied the party’s request to immediately re-enroll the more than 6,000 previous Libertarians, saying plaintiffs had not proved that the actual thresholds required to maintain a party were unreasonable and that there was no immediate harm to those former members being unenrolled.
Both parties in the case said they were gratified by the ruling.
Dunlap, a Democrat, said the immediate denial proved the state was “on the right track” in following the law, but did not comment on the constitutionality of the law, saying that still needs to be sorted out in court.
Jim Baines, the chair of the Libertarian Party, said the ruling gave hope that his party would prevail in the end.
The Libertarian Party first tried to gain recognition in December 2015, but Dunlap’s office rejected the bid because not enough enrollees could be verified as Maine residents. Its deadline was extended in federal court and the party gained official status in June 2016 with 5,150 voters. The party lost its status by December 2018, when the party only had 6,168 voters. It had until Jan. 2 to get 5,000 enrollees.
Walker factored the timing of the suit into his decision. By waiting almost a year to challenge their most recent loss of status, he said previously enrolled members may have since enrolled in other parties, or may prefer their unenrolled status.
Further, the Libertarian party has not proved that those previous members wish to be enrolled. Automatically re-enrolling them “would completely disrupt the state’s orderly process of election administration and would be manifestly unfair to other candidates – both those enrolled in other parties and unenrolled ‒ who are competing for those same elective offices and remain obligated to comply with all applicable statutory requirements,” Walker wrote.
The state recognized three political parties as of May 27: Democrats, with 381,448 voters; Republicans, with 291,210 voters; and the Green Party, with 42,242 voters. There are 344,108 voters unenrolled in any party, according to the Secretary of State’s office.