When Ed Thompson ran for governor of Wisconsin in 2002, he put the Libertarian Party on the map — winning 185,455 votes, 10.5 percent of the total turnout. Thompson actually carried two counties in west-central Wisconsin: Monroe and Juneau. And his double-digit finish qualified the Libertarians for a place on the old Wisconsin State Elections Board.

It has not been that good for the Libertarians since.

In 2010, Libertarian gubernatorial candidate Terry Virgil won just 6,790 votes — 0.31 percent of the vote. Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson upped the party’s Wisconsin total to 20,000 in 2012. That made the Libertarians the strongest third party on the ballot (Green Jill Stein was next with less than 8,000 votes), but “strongest” is a relative term. The Libertarians have a lot of rebuilding to do.

But they are trying. Libertarian candidates will appear on Wisconsin’s November ballot as candidates for governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, secretary of state, state treasurer, and one seat in Congress — the 6th District seat being vacated by Congressman Tom Petri. Libertarians are also seeking five state legislative seats, including two where the Libertarians are the only challengers to major-party incumbents.

The Libertarians are optimistic, with secretary of state candidate Andy Craig announcing, “We are all excited by the momentum that continues to build toward offering voters in Wisconsin a real choice, an alternative to the stale old establishment parties.”

Everyone who hopes for a richer and more diverse politics in Wisconsin should respect what the Libertarians have accomplished — not for ideological reasons (although some of the party’s ideology is quite appealing) but because voters really do need options and alternatives.

That’s the Wisconsin way.

Historically, Wisconsin has been a multiparty state. From 1900 into the 1940s, it was not uncommon for candidates of three or four parties to post credible numbers in statewide races. For the first 30 years of the last century, the Socialist Party competed with the Democrats for status as the major opposition party to the dominant Republicans. There were a number of legislative sessions in which the Socialists formed the second largest caucuses in the Assembly and Senate. Additionally, the Socialists won local posts in a number of cities and counties, including Milwaukee, where they held the mayoralty until 1960. The Progressive Party of the 1930s and 1940s often beat the Republicans and the Democrats, winning the governorship with Phil La Follette and then Orland Loomis, and electing a U.S. senator, members of Congress and legislative majorities.

But, with the exception of Thompson’s solid finish in 2002, and reasonably strong runs by Green Party gubernatorial candidate Jim Young in 2002 and Green Party Senate candidate Rae Vogeler in 2006, Wisconsinites have not seen enough evidence of political diversity in recent years.

Part of the problem has to do with the intense polarization of the state, which began during George Bush’s presidency and which accelerated dramatically with the election of Scott Walker as governor. Wisconsin’s Republicans are more intensely conservative than they have ever been. And Wisconsin’s Democrats are more generally progressive than they have been at any time since the late 1950s and early 1960s.

But there is more to it than that. The structures of our politics are increasingly balanced in favor of the Republicans and the Democrats, and against new parties and independents. Money in politics is a factor, to be sure, but so too are earlier than ever filing deadlines for candidates, the tightening of early-voting and same-day registration rules, biased ballot designs, and a host of other factors.

One encouraging development has been the elimination of straight-party voting, meaning that voters must make their pick in each race. But, for the most part, the fix is in for the so-called “major parties.” That means that third-party and independent candidates must work doubly hard to get traction.

The Libertarians deserve a lot of credit for the effort they’ve made this year. Revitalized by the efforts of an internal grouping, the Wisconsin Liberty Coalition, party members collected more than 10,000 signatures on nominating petitions. They’ve recruited a solid slate of candidates — led by gubernatorial candidate Robert Burke, a former Republican from the Hudson area — and written a platform that emphasizes classic Libertarian positions, including: “The repeal of laws restricting the production, sale, possession, or use of prohibited drugs and medicines. The repeal of laws regarding a minimum drinking age which are in conflict with the legally recognized age for maturity and responsibility. The repeal of laws restricting consensual sexual relations between adults. The repeal of laws regulating or prohibiting gambling. The decriminalization of assisted suicide.”

Reasonable people may disagree with the Libertarians on some of those issues, and a lot of folks might object to the party’s call for “the phaseout of all state and federal involvement in education.”

But a lot of the same folks will applaud the party’s commitment to defend Fourth Amendment protections: “We believe that free individuals may not be compelled to authorize the assignment, collection or dissemination of personal and private information on themselves; nor may any rights and privileges available to others be denied to them for using such discretion.”

And everyone who cares about democracy should welcome the Libertarian commitment to election law reforms that open up the process. The Democrats and Republicans have plenty of advantages. It’s good to have an alternative that says, as does Libertarian gubernatorial candidate Bob Burke: “I’m highly optimistic I can follow through on my promise to mess things up for both sides.”

John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. jnichols@madison.com and @NicholsUprising

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