Today’s Courier Herald Column:
When candidate qualifying ended last week, Brett Bittner was the only person who put his name on the ballot for an open seat with the Marietta School Board. He is now presumptively elected to serve the school system in the Cobb County city northwest of Atlanta.
Uncontested local races are generally not political events from which headlines are made. Bittner’s situation is unique in that he is the Executive director of the Libertarian Party of Georgia. While the race is officially non-partisan, he is believed to become the third member of the Libertarian Party to hold office in Georgia.
Libertarians are generally known and branded by their national candidates. Ron Paul first ran for President as a Libertarian in 1988 before his perpetual run began under the Republican banner. Georgia’s own Bob Barr was the Libertarian nominee in 2008, though Barr is back in the Republican fold and backing Mitt Romney this year. Former Republican Governor Gary Johnson is the Libertarian nominee for 2012, further demonstrating the path between the two parties.
While the Libertarians traditionally field a slate of statewide candidates in Georgia, electoral success has remained elusive. Libertarians extend their rigid views of limited government to both social issues and national defense. As such, the message is often against the grain in a state that has different benchmarks for demonstrating a strong national defense and wishes to defend social issues through legislation.
Libertarians also have a reputation for being unyielding and unbending in their views. A common knock against them is that they would rather win an argument than win an election. Political discussions with Libertarians are frequently highly theoretical, but converting the theories to real world policy that can be implemented with the support of 51% of those at the ballot box remains elusive.
Which brings us back to the significance of Bittner’s election. For average Georgians to change their views on Libertarians, there will have to be a real world demonstration that oft discussed theories can be moved to the practicalities of actual governance. It is highly unlikely that Georgians or Americans are going to start that experiment at the Presidential or Gubernatorial level.
The nuts and bolts of governance begin much closer to home. A school board is also more akin to a controlled experiment. Voters can watch the votes and policies set forth by a local school board member and easily compare to similar patterns in nearby systems.
Bittner has the opportunity to demonstrate that Libertarians can do more than pontificate at a time when many voters are wondering if elected officials of any partisan stripe have that ability. For a party that believes strongly in markets, Bittner has the opportunity to introduce a new product to the market of political ideas.
Non-partisan races such as Bittner’s in Marietta or Libertarian City Council member Karen Richardson in the north Fulton town of John’s Creek represent an opportunity to build foundation for the party. They are able to gain a foothold in both governing and to demonstrate their abilities to a skeptical public.
The opportunity to expand from that foundation remains limited however. While Libertarians are able to place candidates on the statewide ballot, Georgia’s ballot access laws do not allow Libertarians to automatically place candidates for State House and Senate on our ballots. Petition drives are required, with some of the most stringent requirements in the country to place a name on the ballot for election.
This market has significant barriers to entry, and those currently in control are understandably reluctant to open it up to more competition. Incumbent protection is, after all, a significant default setting throughout the political landscape.
Libertarians who wish to change this should follow the lead of Bittner. Local races are most likely to be non-partisan where qualifying as a Libertarian is on equal footing with Republicans and Democrats. It is also the level of governance where the people are closest to those who govern them. More Libertarians at the local level will expand the brand, and build acceptance of the party. It could also help build the required momentum to expand ballot access for higher levels of office.
As such, Bittner and those like him will perhaps receive a little extra scrutiny as they execute their duites. They represent Libertarians best opportunity to expand their foothold to more and higher offices.
No pressure Brett. Good luck with your new position.