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A Libertarian primary for the first time in Michigan history

This year, Libertarianswill join Republicans and Democrats with candidates on the August primary ballot in Michigan. This is something that doesn’t happen very often. In fact, the last time a third party qualified to hold a primary in Michigan was 1998.

Michigan allows any party that captures five percent or more of the total votes cast in the last Secretary of State election to hold a primary. In 1996, Ross Perot’s Reform Party performed to that level, so it qualified for the 1998 ballot.

In 2016, with high unfavorables for both Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton, enough voters cast their ballots for the Libertarian ticket, led by former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson. But, truth be told, a lot of those votes cast were not so much for the Libertarians as against the other options. And that’s created an opening for Michigan Libertarians in 2018.

“I think it’s nonsense, the idea that Republicans or Democrats own your vote,” Bill Hall, Chair of the Libertarian Party of Michigan, told It’s Just Politics.

Hall says being on the primary ballot means Libertarians are getting earlier attention in this election cycle. And Michigan’s famously independent, swing voters will see they have more options than just Rs or Ds on the August ballot

“Libertarian voters tend to be working class, what you might characterize as Reagan Democrat sort of voters, and, consequently in close races, they really do have an effect.” Hall says voters will not only see another choice, but other candidates might feel compelled to adopt more libertarian positions to win over those independents. The Libertarian Party, for example, was out early in favor of legalizing marijuana, a position now apparently favored by most voters in Michigan.

Forty-two Michigan Libertarians have filed to run for Congress, the Legislature, and Governor. Most of those primaries are uncontested.  

But there is one uncontested race: two candidates have filed for the Libertarian nomination for governor of Michigan.

Bill Gelineau, a west Michigan businessman with a long history of activism with the state Libertarian Party, and John Tatar, a retired teacher and Army Reserve lieutenant colonel, who’s run a couple of times for other offices.

A contested primary means there are opportunities for the candidates to get Libertarians’ issues into the political conversation, even if most of the attention is still focused on the loud and crowded Democratic and Republican primaries.

Bill Hall, the state party chair, is also touring the state to meet with editorial boards. He hopes to convince them to make endorsements in the Libertarian primary, just like they do in the Democratic and Republican races.

Hall wants to garner respect for his party and do everything he can to help to hit that magic five percent number once again in November.

To make that happen, a third party typically has to recreate the unique conditions that made so many voters opt for an alternative. It’s not easy. And, it typically doesn’t last long.

Zoe Clark is Michigan Public's Political Director. In this role, Clark guides coverage of the state Capitol, elections, and policy debates.
Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987.
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