BOSTON — Driven by voter dissatisfaction with the two major parties, the state’s Libertarians have seen a surge in numbers in recent years, even as other parties shrink.
The Libertarian Party of Massachusetts had 19,851 members as of Feb. 12 — a more than 130% increase from 2017 when it regained its party status, according to Secretary of State Bill Galvin’s office. A sizable portion of its membership draws from Essex and Middlesex counties, where about 6,300 voters are registered as Libertarians.
While Libertarians are still just a sliver of the electorate — only 0.43% of more than 4.5 million registered voters — their ranks are growing faster than any other political party.
Cristina Crawford, the state party’s chairwoman, attributes the growth to voter dissatisfaction with the two major parties, as well as the Libertarians’ message of civil rights, economic liberty and limited government.
“We’re seeing a lot of support, which is very encouraging,” she said. “We’ve become a refuge for disillusioned voters who are tired of big government, high taxes and politics as usual.”
Crawford said Libertarians face a lot of challenges as a party, such as fighting to get on the ballot, being kept off the debate stage and a lack of press attention.
“Despite those handicaps, we’ve done pretty well,” she said. “We’re seeing a lot of support this election cycle as well.”
Dozens of candidates are vying for the Libertarians’ presidential nomination this year. In Massachusetts, 10 candidates were listed on the party’s ballot on Super Tuesday.
The Libertarians hold their state convention March 22, ahead of the party’s May 21–25 national convention in Austin, Texas.
Nationally, the Libertarian Party has seen a 92% rise in membership in the last decade, fielding candidates in dozens of states. Two years ago, the party saw more than 600 candidates in federal, state and local races in nearly 40 states.
In Massachusetts, the Libertarians’ numbers have grown as the major two parties have shrunk, according to Galvin’s office.
As of Feb. 12, the number of registered Democrats in the state was nearly 1.5 million, while Republicans had 462,586 registered members.
More than 2.5 million voters are “unenrolled,” or political independents — a number that has grown about 6% from 2017 to 2020, according to Galvin’s office.
Increased interest in the Libertarians also helped the party reclaim official state recognition three years ago due to their showing in the 2016 presidential election.
New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson was the party’s candidate, with former Massachusetts Republican Gov. Bill Weld as his running mate, against Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump.
The Libertarian ticket won 4.2% of the vote in Massachusetts — clearing a benchmark 3% necessary to be officially recognized and have its candidates listed on the next ballot.
Two years ago, Dan Fishman of Beverly challenged Democratic State Auditor Suzanne Bump, and while he came in third in the statewide race, he boosted the party’s profile.
Independent parties come and go in Massachusetts with challengers that seldom gain traction.
An example of the seesaw existence is the Green-Rainbow Party, which regained recognition after three of its candidates – running for secretary of state, auditor and treasurer – got 4% of the vote in 2014. Two years later, the party lost its official designation when presidential candidate Jill Stein failed to get 3% of the vote.
Still, voter dissatisfaction with the two major parties continues to simmer, according to polls that cite frustration over divisive national politics.
A 2018 Suffolk University survey found a strong appetite for strong third-party candidates, with only 22% of the respondents saying the Democratic and Republican parties do a good job of representing Americans’ views.
“It shows the dissatisfaction of the American electorate, said David Paleologos, director of Suffolk’s Political Research Center. “The polarization has increased the number of people who say they’ve had enough of both parties.”
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.