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Analysis: For Libertarians, "Small D" Democracy

Not all political candidates are chosen in primary elections. Some get on the November ballot with the votes of fewer people than you might see at a local Tea Party rally.

Chairman Pat Dixon presiding at the Libertarian Party of Texas state convention in Temple on April 12, 2014.

TEMPLE — You can get on the state’s November general election ballot with fewer votes than it takes to get on the vestry of many churches. The downside is that the party that can get you that far has never been able to get anyone into statewide office. 

The Libertarian Party of Texas nominated its statewide candidates over the weekend, putting up a slate that includes someone for every office at the top of the ballot. They argued along the way, in the way that you argue about politics with people you know — as opposed to the impersonal disagreements between strangers.

It all came off like the proceedings of a small club and not like a major political party in one of the nation’s most populous states.

The delegates' cars did not fill even half of the parking lot at the Frank W. Mayborn Civic and Convention Center.

This is the group left behind when the Tea Party snuck up and stole the conservative mantle from the Republican Party of Texas. That is now the most energetic wing of the GOP, while the Libertarians — still a wellspring of conservative ideas for the bigger groups — languished. Local Tea Party groups have held dozens of rallies bigger than the Libertarian Party’s state convention.

Libertarians have a marketing problem. They call themselves socially liberal and economically conservative, a mix that appeals to some, but that shuts out partisans on both the left and the right who are either economically liberal or socially conservative.

For instance, one running argument among the delegates concerned the positions of one of the top candidates. Kathie Glass will return to the November ballot as the party’s gubernatorial candidate after a debate over her adherence — or lack of it — to party positions on marijuana, immigration and gay rights.

Some delegates urged the convention delegates to choose “none of the above” in the first round of voting to demonstrate their opposition to Glass. They had red and white stickers and posters printed up to resemble British security announcements: “Keep calm and vote NOTA.” After a first-ballot tie with Robert Bell, she prevailed on the second ballot. Glass, who got 2.2 percent of the general election vote in 2010, told the delegates she thinks she will do better this year.

She was not talking to very many people at the time. The state convention attracted 219 delegates. Of that number, 216 received the multi-page paper ballots used in the convention’s voting. Half of that number, plus one, was all it took to get on the November ballot. Just 109 votes. (For full nomination results from the Libertarian convention, as well as from the Republican and Democratic primaries, see our election brackets.)

The difference between this and the size of the two major parties is vast, even at a time when turnout for the Republican and Democratic primaries in Texas is something of a national joke. It's like the difference between Beer League and Major League Baseball, between paper airplanes and airliners.

Still, watching the delegates churn through rules and argue over ballots and candidates puts the personal back into a political process that often plays out in commercials and mailers and quick meetings with strangers who bang on front doors fishing for support.

The major-party conventions in the state give already chosen candidates stages for publicity and an opportunity to network with some of the people who will turn out their voters months later.

The Libertarians meet, argue, vote and then go live with the results. They hold an actual convention that operates as a decision-making machine that sends candidates to the general public. While the other parties play out their politics at a scale large enough to shrink the influence of any particular voter, this is a smaller field where every vote actually does count.

In fact, everything came to a halt at one point in Saturday’s proceedings when it appeared that the number of ballots on the floor outnumbered the delegates — by one. After a few minutes, that was straightened out and the organizers knew — by name — who had a ballot but had not been counted as a delegate.

Being small has some advantages.

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Politics 2014 elections