New Hampshire Report 4: Examining Population and Political Accessibility
Examining Population and Political Accessibility
By Keith Murphy
The author has directly managed nine campaigns for state legislative office in Maryland, resulting in six victories. In addition, he has consulted for numerous local races in Baltimore City. These services have included all aspects of campaign management, from analyzing district demographics and voter files to fundraising to production of literature and signs to organizing volunteers and door-to-door. He is eagerly awaiting the opportunity to put this experience to work for those who share his political viewpoints, in the free state.
IntroductionBoosters of small population states, such as Wyoming, Montana, Vermont, and Delaware, will be happy to tell you that the population factor is crucial to the success of the project. It is a cornerstone of the FSP.
But why? Why does population matter?
The typical answer is that the more people are in a given state, the more difficult it will be to reach a required saturation point, a tipping point, in order to achieve the political power it will take to put the state on a course to liberty. Thus, small-state boosters claim, 20,000 activists in New Hampshire are equivalent to only 7,500 in Wyoming.
This is an extremely simplistic way of measuring the states against each other, and could lead to an uninformed vote. It assumes that all other things are equal. But the states are not equal, and there are real and distinct differences between them. For example, isn't it logical that population is only a concern to the degree that the native population leans against us? Would the FSP have a better chance in a state with low taxes and a live-and-let-live attitude, with a population of a million, or in a state of 600,000 with high taxes and onerous infringements on personal liberty? While there inarguably is not yet a fully libertarian state, some are clearly closer to the ideal than others. The closer a state comes to that ideal, the more irrelevant the population factor becomes. This is why members spend so much time weighing and arguing about tax rates, gun laws, drug arrests, and other rough indicators of a state's "libertarian-ness."
But when considering the impact of population on the state choice, there may be another factor that's even more important than political culture. From the FSP site:
The Free State Project is a plan in which 20,000 or more liberty-oriented people will move to a single state of the U.S., where they may work within the political system to reduce the size and scope of government.
Even more than population, this whole project is dependent on the accessibility of the political system of the chosen state! Even if the given state has a small population, and leans libertarian politically, if the doors to power are closed to us by stifling election laws, all of our efforts will have been in vain. Many of these election laws are directly related to the population issue.
- Each state has different district sizes for their legislature.
- Some states allow multi-member districts, and some do not.
- Some have fusion, and some do not.
- Some have nonpartisan local races, and some do not.
- The ballot access requirement varies widely from one state to the next.
- From a logistical viewpoint, campaigns are more difficult in some states than others, due to geographic features.
- The form of local government is very different from state to state.
- Finally, one state offers an executive council.
A brief overview of these features is provided here.
District SizePopulation is only relevant to the state-choice issue for the effect that it has upon our ability to influence the political reality of the chosen state. But each state has very different systems, producing varying districts of very different sizes. District size for each office is one of the key components of understanding the relevance of population, as it provides some measure of the work to be done to begin to take power from the existing political structure.
Even if you ignore differences in political culture, the overall population number is only relevant for those select offices that have the entire state as its district. For example, if you assume that Wyoming and New Hampshire are equally libertarian, then it should be easier to win the governorship of Wyoming than that of New Hampshire, as the number of votes required is substantially less. The same would apply to other statewide offices, such as state's attorney, treasurer, etc. Given the tremendous undertaking of running a credible campaign for these statewide offices, in any of the ten states, it is inevitable that our initial efforts will be concentrated on offices with many less constituents, such as state legislative office and local offices.
The district size is (per the US Supreme Court's disastrous decision in Baker v. Carr) decided by dividing the state's population by the number of seats. This gives the "ideal" district size. Every ten years, following the census, state legislators pore over voter demographic data, and (being careful to include their major campaign contributors in their district and making it as hard as possible for opposing parties) redraw the district lines to account for shifts in population. Each district must be within 5% of the ideal district size, a measure the Supreme Court apparently found under the sofa cushions. As noted above, in general it is true that the smaller the district size the easier it is to win, as the fewer voters that must be courted to achieve victory. The smallest house districts in the nation can be found in New Hampshire, beginning at 2,987 citizens. Vermont comes in next, with 4,059 citizens for its single-member districts. Wyoming can boast the smallest uniform districts, with an ideal district population of 8,230.
State Legislative Districts
Idaho, North Dakota, and South Dakota all have two-member districts. Vermont has a mix of single-member and two-member districts. New Hampshire is a peculiar case, because of a state constitutional provision that prohibits splitting towns without their permission. This results in multi-member districts of varying size, as detailed below.
Multi-Member DistrictsMulti-member districts may be "at large", meaning that all members represent all constituents, or they may be broken into sub-districts. Multi-member districts that are broken into sub-districts (A, B, etc.) usually cover large geographic areas, the given rationale usually being that legislators should live reasonably close to their constituents. Sub-districts usually operate just like single-member districts, in that constituents go into the booth and cast just one vote for that office. In comparison, in at-large districts voters go into the booth and cast as many votes as there are seats. Idaho, North Dakota, and South Dakota all have two-member house districts, some of which are broken into sub-districts and some of which are not. In New England, the unit of political power is not counties but towns, and districts are drawn in such as way so as to avoid splitting towns wherever possible. The New Hampshire Constitution actually forbids splitting towns without their concurrence, resulting in a wide variety of district sizes. Where Vermont's house consists entirely of one-member and two-member districts, New Hampshire's house districts each have between one and fourteen seats, with the majority of districts having between three and five seats. New Hampshire and Vermont have no sub-districts, as do some of the larger western states.
The practical effect of at-large multi-member districts is that voters get as many votes as there are seats. The major parties sometimes have difficulty finding candidates to run for all the seats in a large district, and it is easy to court the "extra" votes of a constituent. If a Republican has ten votes, and only has eight Republicans to vote for, he is much more likely to give one or both of his extra votes to a Libertarian than a Democrat. Of course, the same is true of a Democrat. Party loyalists are much more likely to vote for a third-party member than they are for "that other party." For example, in 2002 the Wyoming LP ran Marie Brossman for Secretary of State against an incumbent Republican. The Democrats did not field a candidate. It was a brilliant move that paid off handsomely, as Ms. Brossman received 17% of the vote and gave the LP major party status in Wyoming until 2006.
Those states with at-large multi-member districts offer an electoral advantage over those that don't. New Hampshire with its wide variety of district sizes, offering constituents up to 14 votes each is particularly attractive in this category.
FusionFusion allows a candidate to run for office under two or more parties simultaneously. In the nineteenth century, fusion was a regular occurrence throughout the nation, but it was such an opportunity for third parties that the major parties worked in concert to ban it in most states. Of the ten candidate states, it is only possible (with slight variances in application) in Vermont, Delaware, Idaho, Maine, South Dakota, and New Hampshire. Of these six states, it would appear that fusion only regularly occurs in Vermont and New Hampshire. The other states could require an attorney general's opinion and a court case to establish a modern precedent, and the first successful use of fusion could trigger a belated effort by the major two parties to ban it.
When a third-party candidate runs under a major party banner, several important things are accomplished. First, the major party includes the nominee on all campaign literature, effectively paying to get the third-party's word out. Second, the nominee benefits from straight-ticket voters in the general election, that distinct subset of voters who don't even bother to look at the candidates' names. Third, the very act of cross-nominating winners gives the third-party credibility.
Fusion is always an electoral advantage, but when combined with multi-member districts, especially large multi-member districts, it produces real opportunity. This is explored in greater detail in the companion report Towards Victory: A Strategy for Achieving a Libertarian Caucus.
Nonpartisan Local RacesDelaware, Vermont, and New Hampshire have predominantly nonpartisan local races. This is an important advantage, because most members who desire to run for office will be cutting their teeth in the local races first. This is an important way to build both name recognition for future political ambition and, in a bigger sense, to build the political machine that elects party members year in and year out. When the race is nonpartisan, the candidates cannot rely on a party label. Instead, the focus is on the candidate's message and arguments. This can only benefit those of us who wish to run as Libertarians.
To clarify, there may be other candidate states that possess this advantage, but the supporters of those states have not brought that information forward. To the best of the author's knowledge, only Delaware, Vermont, and New Hampshire offer nonpartisan local elections.
Ballot AccessSome members have advocated that we subvert one or both of the existing major party structures in the free state, while others have said that a new party or the Libertarian Party is the way to go. If you find yourself in the former group, then there is no advantage or disadvantage to the various states in this regard. If you find yourself in the latter group, then this has a tremendous impact on which state is the best choice.
- Alaska For major party status, a political party must either
have nominated a candidate for governor that received at least 3% of the vote
in the last general election or have registered voters equal to at least 3% of
the votes cast for governor in the last general election. There are no
provisions allowing nomination by petition.
- Delaware For major party status, a political party must
register at least 5% of the total number of voters in the state. A minor party
may nominate by convention as long as it has registered at least .05% of the
voters in the state. Alternatively, anyone may be placed on the ballot upon
submitting a number of petitions equal to 1% of the voters to be served by the
- Idaho Any party may qualify for major party status in one of
- Having three or more candidates for state or national office at a general election,
- A candidate receiving at least 3% of the votes cast for state or national office, or
- Submitting a number of petitions equal to 2% of the number of votes cast for president.
Anyone may file as an Independent by submitting the relevant number of petitions: 1,000 for statewide office, 500 for congress, 50 for the state legislature, or 5 for county office.
- Maine "Major parties" are defined as the two parties polling
the highest vote totals for governor in the most recent general election.
Third parties are blatantly shut out on this score. However, minor parties are
still qualified to take part in a primary if they hold municipal caucuses in at
least one municipality in each county of the state, if a state convention is
held, if the party's candidate for governor or President polled at least 5% of
the total in either of the last two general elections, AND if it was on the
ballot for either of the last two general elections.
- New Hampshire For major party status, a political party must
nominate a candidate for governor or United States Senator that obtains at
least 4% of the vote in a general election. A political organization (minor
party) may still have its name on the ballot for the general election by
submitting a number of petitions equal to 3% of the votes cast in the last
general election. Anyone can be nominated by submitting 3,000 petitions for
governor, 750 for state senator, or 150 for state representative.
- North Dakota A political organization may not nominate
anyone for statewide or legislative office unless it:
- Holds a caucus meeting in every voting precinct throughout the state by May 15th immediately following a general election,
- Had a candidate for president or governor receive at least 5% of the vote at the most recent general election, OR
- Submits 7,000 petitions to the secretary of state.
Independents must be nominated at the primary election, with a different ballot clearly marked "No-Party." The number of people nominated for each office through the no-party process is twice the number of seats. In other words, as there can only be one governor, no more than two "no-party" candidates can be nominated.
- South Dakota For major party status, a party must submit a
number of petitions equal to 2.5% of the votes cast for governor in the last
preceding election. A minor party may have its designation on the general
ballot by submitting 250 petitions for statewide or federal office, or 5
petitions for legislative or county office. Independents may be placed on the
general ballot by submitting a number of petitions equal to 1% of the total
votes for the office of governor in the relevant district or subdivision in the
most recent general election.
- Vermont For major party status, a party must have received
at least 5% of the vote for any statewide office in the most recent general
election. Minor parties may not nominate someone for statewide office unless
town committees are set up in at least ten different towns. Anyone may be
nominated to be on the general election ballot by submitting 250 signatures for
statewide offices, 100 for state senator, or 50 for state representative.
- Wyoming For major party status, a political party must nominate a candidate for statewide office that obtains at least 10% of the vote in a general election. To nominate via petitions, the party must submit a number of petitions equal to 2% of the votes cast in the relevant jurisdiction for the office of United States Representative in the preceding general election.
Geographic FeaturesThe area of the candidate states, and their districts, is a factor that deserves serious consideration. Some states have a larger rural population, while the residents of some states prefer living in denser areas, mostly due to climate issues. There are two primary reasons why the area of the state should be a concern. First, the logistical difficulty of operating a campaign is directly proportional to the distance that must be covered. Campaigns in denser districts may be done on foot, whereas larger districts require hours to canvass in a vehicle. Second, larger areas make influencing the political process more difficult. There is much to be done in this regard, such as testifying before senate and house committees and visiting legislators to discuss issues. This is much easier when the state house is within easy commuting distance.
Geographic Rural/Urban Characteristics
|1||The area of the states in square miles.|
|2||The area divided by the number of state house districts. This is merely an average; it is important to remember that urban districts are quite small while rural districts are much larger.|
|3||The percentage of the population of the state that lives in urban areas, as defined by the United States Census Bureau.|
|4||The distance from the state capital to the population center of a given state. This measure represents spatially where the capital is in regards to the population of the state. (See here and here).|
Local GovernmentIn the western states and in Delaware, the primary form of local government is based on county jurisdictions. Within each county there may be incorporated areas that may enact their own ordinances, as long as they are in compliance with the laws of the state and county. The end result of this system is to have all citizens under a tiered system, with those living in municipalities suffering from an additional level.
The three New England states are different. While they have counties, they exist mostly as lines on the map. Most of the functions of local government are performed at the town level, and the majority of the land area in the states is incorporated. In general, courts are operated at the county level, but all other functions, from roads to police to fire service to schools, are administered at the town level. Issues are discussed at town meetings, giving each citizen an opportunity to speak his mind.
This form of government has several important advantages. First, it is the closest to the people, assuring that everyone in each town knows their elected town officials personally. Remember, most power rests in the hands of town officials instead of county officials administering vastly larger areas. Second, it provides citizens amazing control over the town budget. In New Hampshire, fifteen signatures is enough to place a budget item, called a "warrant," on the ballot for referendum. If you don't want that new high school, get fifteen signatures and vote it down. If you don't want the town to get a new garbage truck because you think trash collection should be privatized, get fifteen signatures and put it on the ballot. Many towns have less than 1,000 people, and some have less than 100. Hart's Location, NH, only has 37 residents. Each town is in control of all of its spending.
This brings me to the final advantage of the town-centered form of local government. There are some areas of the New England states that are not incorporated. These are very lightly populated, and residents contract with the nearest town to provide those services that they do not provide for themselves, such as schools. There is no constitutional provision in New Hampshire requiring public schools, but there is a constitutional prohibition against the state issuing unfunded mandates to the towns. Thus, there is no reason why a small group of FSP members could not simply move to an unincorporated area and incorporate as a new town. For this town, they could write their own charter, prohibiting public schools, taxes, zoning, and anything else they wish. They could even decide to not have a police department.
For that matter, there are even some low-population towns that a few dozen FSP members would quickly overwhelm from sheer numbers. The current ordinances could be repealed and the charter altered. The degree to which this opportunity exists varies throughout the New England states. Vermont's constitution does not protect towns from unfunded state mandates, while Maine's constitution requires public schools to be maintained. New Hampshire offers both advantages.
Executive CouncilAs noted earlier, population as a factor in the state choice is only relevant because of the implications it holds for our ability to influence the process and work within the political system. For elections, the population of the entire state only matters when the entire state is your district; that is to say, for statewide offices. There are very few statewide offices. In most states only the governor, attorney general, and treasurer come under the heading of "statewide," and these are the only offices for which the state's population is an issue. As we will likely begin in local and state legislative races, it is the size of those districts that should most concern us.
New Hampshire possesses an advantage in this regard: the ability to influence the executive branch without winning a statewide office. The governor works with an elected "Executive Council," which must approve any expenditure over $5,000. They help the governor craft the budget, approve the placement of roads, and otherwise direct the day-to-day operation of government. The council has five members, elected from districts of roughly 247,157 persons each. These districts are, then, each almost exactly half the population of Wyoming, and would allow us to influence the executive branch earlier than is possible in any other state.
ConclusionIt is extremely simplistic to measure the candidate states against each other simply on the basis of overall population, as doing so assumes all other things are equal, which is assuredly not the case. There are two primary complicating factors that must be taken into consideration when weighing population. The first is the degree to which the native population leans with or against us. It is far better for the project to be in a state of a million people who lean libertarian than in a state of a half-million that leans socialist.
The second factor, which is even more important, is the accessibility of the given state's political system. There are many measures of accessibility, some of which can be quantified and some of which cannot. They include such measures as district size, whether the state has multi-member districts or fusion, or both, ballot access, and other unique features.
Considering population as a factor through these lenses provides a much more accurate picture of our chances of actually effecting change in the candidate states. One state, in particular, leaps to the top of the pile, both in terms of the libertarian leanings of the native population and, most importantly, in openness of the political system. On every measure here reviewed, New Hampshire comes out at, or near, the top. Of critical importance is the fact that New Hampshire offers that which no other state can: fusion combined with large multi-member districts. This crucial advantage is explored further in a companion report, Towards Victory: A Strategy for Achieving a Libertarian Caucus.