Michigan Libertarian Party candidates are playing to win in what will be their first general election as a major party on Nov. 6 in part by developing edgy policy to try to stay relevant long after the election.

But the obstacles the party faces include low fundraising totals that make televised ads all but impossible, which is why it is relying on radio ads. Libertarians also face little to no opportunities to debate their opponents in a traditional bipartisan system.  

Nonetheless, the party is optimistic about meeting its goal of requalifying as a major party for 2020 and providing a steady third voice for voters. Libertarian gubernatorial candidate Bill Gelineau of Lowell must win votes equivalent to 5 percent of the ballots cast in the secretary of state race.

“I’m trying to win but, short of that, I recognize the realities,” Gelineau said. “We realize this is a rare opportunity.”

Among the controversial proposals by Gelineau are a secession plan for Detroit and other cities from Wayne County and a plan to pay a cash incentive to young women from welfare families who avoid pregnancy up to a certain age. 

Gelineau and other Libertarian candidates owe their major party status to 2016 presidential candidate Gary Johnson, who took 3.6 percent of Michigan's votes and earned the Libertarian Party its coveted status for 2018.

The party is attempting adapt its bylaws to accommodate major party status, while developing policy in line with Libertarian ideals and earning enough votes to return as a major party in 2020. Libertarian can compete “intellectually and electorally in the state,” Gelineau said

Libertarians aren't likely to gain any statewide offices in November, but the election could help the party expand its voter base or makes strides in raising money, said David Dulio, chairman of the political science department at Oakland University.

"For third and minor party candidates, success in an election can mean more than winning," Dulio said. 

The candidates

The 58-year-old Libertarian candidate for governor hails from the west side of the state, in Lowell, where he lives with his wife, Donna. The owner of Abacus Title Agency, Gelineau has held various positions within the Libertarian Party, including two stints as chairman.

His running mate is Auburn Hills businesswoman Angelique Chaiser Thomas, who was approved by delegates in August at the Libertarian Party’s state convention in Romulus.

A small business owner in West Bloomfield, Lisa Lane Gioia is running as the Libertarian attorney general candidate. Neither an attorney nor a law enforcement official, Gioia has spent more than 25 years running a small business that does translation and editing work for a Japanese law firm specializing in intellectual property law.

If elected, Gioia hopes to focus the attorney general’s office more on the rule of law and less as a stepping stone to the governor’s office. Democrat Jennifer Granholm was the last attorney general to be governor, and current office holder Bill Schuette is the Republican candidate for governor.

“This is the law,” she said. “It’s not to be manipulated or used or skewed to achieving a political end.”

Gregory Stempfle, a 41-year-old medical technologist from Ferndale, is running as the party’s secretary of state candidate. He has been instrumental in researching and rewriting the group’s bylaws.

Floating controversial plans

While Libertarians usually support the idea of less government and a greater emphasis on individual rights, Gelineau considers himself part of the “pragmatic caucus” in the party. He said he recognizes extreme changes to the status quo might be more than the system can handle at this point.

“That’s not on my agenda for now,” Gelineau said.

Still, Gelineau has floated an “incentive-based reproductive” plan that rewards girls and women who delay their first pregnancies. He contends Medicaid has helped pay for a large percentage of live births in Michigan.

Called MI-Way Forward, Gelineau’s plan would pay young women starting at age 17 for every year they avoid pregnancy. Eligible women would be from families who received public assistance, would be required to register for the program before their 17th birthdays and submit a doctor’s certification of non-pregnancy with their tax returns.

The monetary rewards would increase with each year the woman avoids pregnancy, from a $2,000 incentive at age 17 to a $7,000 payment at 23. Each woman could earn up to $27,000 in incentives. 

After the age of 23, women can receive an income tax credit and state down payment assistance loan through the age of 30 for complying with the program through age 23.

Gelineau hopes the program would help the state save on Medicaid health care and social welfare costs and create a “greater likelihood of successful parenting without social welfare assistance.”

The plan has met with strong dissent from some corners, including Kids Count in Michigan Director Alicia Guevara Warren. The plan is an "attention-seeking gimmick at best" and ignores the true need for more access to family planning and health care services, Warren said. 

"This is just the latest in a long line of bad policy ideas — including some that have unfortunately gone on to become laws — that are based on myths and puffed up motives instead of addressing the real causes of poverty and the real solutions to fixing it," Warren said.

Women are best able to make decisions about their futures when they have access to birth control and sex education, and are "free from government influence or coercion," Planned Parenthood of Michigan said in a statement.

Gelineau also wants to split Detroit and other Metro cities from Wayne County to form a "County of Detroit" under which large Detroit neighborhoods could petition for city status.  

The secession from Wayne County combined with efforts to restore the city's tax-foreclosed properties would boost the area's sense of community, create a manageable political structure, and reinforce local control of schools and communities, Gelineau said.

"Many countries around the world have recognized the value of maximizing administrative power in the most local unit of government possible," he said in a statement.

Stempfle has advocated for ranked voting, in which voters rank their choices for each office and the candidates are scored accordingly, a system that he said would give minor parties a fighting chance against Republicans and Democrats.

In a more traditional Libertarian position, Gioia and Gelineau want to scrap the War on Drugs and release anyone who is in prison for a non-violent marijuana offense. Gioia also supports the end of civil asset forfeiture and the elimination of unnecessary state gun control laws, such as those that bar people from carrying on school property.

“That is up to the individual school system or the individual city to make that decision,” Gioia said. “The people in Baraga County are going to have a different view from the people in Ann Arbor and that’s OK.”

Overcoming fear factor

The biggest obstacle to votes, according to Libertarians, is overcoming the fear factor that drives third-party supporters to vote for a Republican or Democrat because their vote might be wasted on a party with little chance of winning.

“Our natural base of ideology — the support that we would normally have — gets squeezed by what’s called the ‘wasted vote syndrome’,” Gelineau said, noting that ranked voting could be the paradigm that addresses those fears.  

The "wasted vote syndrome" makes it difficult to gauge third party popularity through polling or vote counts alone, Dulio said. 

If a Democrat or Republican leads a statewide race by a large margin, there's no risk for someone with Libertarian beliefs to vote for their party candidate, he said. But when a race gets tight, they may not vote Libertarian, Dulio said.

In the meantime, the momentum that Johnson put in motion in 2016 continues, Gioia said.

“This is just proof that our message is getting out and people are understanding,” she said. “It’s time to start making sense.”

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