DECATUR — They are vocal and hope to gain a toehold this election season. This year, Libertarians have fielded candidates for all statewide offices, most notably the 39-year-old retired Navy officer Grayson "Kash" Jackson for governor. Supporters say it's just the start of an effort to shake up a two-party system. 

"I think that what a lot of people are doing is that they're waking up and realizing that they're Libertarians rather than Democrats or Republicans once they learn what libertarianism is," said John Phillips Jr., chair of the Macon County Libertarians.

The organization formed before the last presidential election, when 3.9 percent of Macon County voters chose Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson. 

The party was founded in 1971 on the foundation of small government and personal freedoms. There are about 800 Libertarian Party candidates this election season across the country. 

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"We support individual rights above all else," Phillips said. "You do whatever you want as long as it doesn't hurt me, and I do whatever I want as long it doesn't hurt you."

The party has become popular with free-market conservatives who don't agree with the Republican Party's social platform, and culturally liberal young people who distrust government solutions for social problems, or think Democrats are fiscally irresponsible.

"I think when you get right down to it, most people kind of at their core are moderates, and most people at their core kind of just want to be left alone," said Dan White, vice chair of the Macon County Libertarians. "They don't want a whole lot of government intervention in their life."

The Macon County Libertarians have grown from six dues-paying members in 2016 to 28 this year, Phillips said, and the group hopes that this year's statewide candidates can improve upon the 1,851 votes Johnson received in 2016.

"It’s completely different, we’re seeing significant growth within the party," Jackson told the Herald & Review during a visit to Decatur this fall. "People are flowing in and wanting to know more about the Libertarian Party."

While the percentage Johnson received two years ago may be a far cry from winning the contest outright, this year, Illinois Libertarians hope an active statewide campaign can help bring out more voters than in 2016.

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"I caught a lot of flak from friends and family in the last presidential election (voting for Johnson), but I did kind of feel like I didn't have a good choice," White said. "So as a protest vote or whatever you want to call it, rather than stay home I voted my conscience."

But now party activists have a larger motivation than just a protest vote. More votes in Macon County could spell a new advantage come 2020.

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Under Illinois law, election officials can grant Libertarians or another third party "major-party status" if at least 5 percent of voters choose their candidate for a statewide office.

Phillips used the Independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders' bid for the Democratic nomination for president as an example of what a losing candidate can accomplish. "He lost, but he still changed a lot of foundational party-line things in the Democratic Party," he said. "(Party leaders) started looking at how much people were into how he was saying."

Major-party status would remove a burden third parties face in Illinois elections. Under the state's election laws, non-major parties must collect more voter signatures to appear on the ballot than Democrats or Republicans.

"To turn in those kind of signature numbers, you can't get that with volunteers, so you have to pay petitioners to gather signatures and that cost us almost $100,000," money that activists could've been spending getting their message out instead, Phillips said.

In an unscientific poll on the Herald & Review website last month, Jackson got 45.4 percent of the vote. The latest gubernatorial poll that included Jackson showed 4 percent of voters supported him, tying another third-party candidate for governor, state Sen. Sam McCann of Plainview, who is running on the Conservative Party ticket.

Phillips thinks his party could break 5 percent in Macon County on Tuesday.

"I'm afraid of super-low voter turnout," Phillips said. "I keep hearing from people, 'I hate everybody that's running,' and I tell them about (Jackson) ... if I had to hazard a guess, I would say 6 percent."

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Contact Tom Lisi at (217) 421-6949. Follow him on Twitter: @tommylisi


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