Tristan Pelletier of Bethel gets his picture taken with then-Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson (right) and his running mate at the time, Bill Weld, at a 2016 campaign event in Portland. The Maine party is suing the state over enrollment thresholds it says are impossible for new parties to maintain. Credit: Troy R. Bennett | BDN

AUGUSTA, Maine — The Libertarian Party of Maine is suing Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap in federal court over political party enrollment thresholds it says are impossible for new parties to maintain.

State law requires new parties to enroll at least 5,000 members the year before a general election and to have at least 10,000 by the next general election and to hold annual state political convention. Party members are unenrolled if that enrollment threshold isn’t met.

The requirements are so burdensome that they “severely burden the constitutional rights” of voters and prevent new political parties from gaining a foothold in the state, the Libertarians claim in a complaint filed Nov. 1.

“You can’t simply throw out one’s choice to belong to a political party,” said Jim Baines of Hampden, the Maine party chair and one of the plaintiffs, in a Wednesday press release.

He went on to say the laws “suppress competition” and prevent “thousands of independent thinkers in Maine from considering a viable political option.” The party is asking the federal court to prevent Dunlap, a Democrat, from enforcing the state laws, allowing Libertarians to compete in state elections until the Legislature changes the law, according to the complaint.

The suit is filed on behalf of Baines; Christopher Lyons, who ran for a U.S. Senate seat in 2018 but failed to make the ballot; Allen Esposito; William Sampson; Cody Blackburn, who ran in 2018 for a Maine House of Representatives seat in Bangor; and the Libertarian Party itself. All were enrolled in the party in 2016 and are enrolled again, according to the complaint.

The state currently recognizes three political parties: Democrats, who have 347,281 voters Republicans, who have 287,045 voters and the Green Party, who have 43,507 voters, according to May registration data. The Libertarian Party had 105 members at that time.

The Libertarian Party first tried to gain recognition in December 2015, but Dunlap’s office rejected that bid because not enough enrollees could be verified as Maine residents. Their deadline was extended in federal court and the party gained official status in June 2016 with 5,150 votes. The party lost its status by December 2018, when the party only had 6,168 voters. It has until Jan. 2 to get 5,000 enrollees, according to a Secretary of State press release.

That deadline is too early for new parties to realistically meet, the Libertarian Party says, pointing to the financial and time commitment needed to enroll party members. Dunlap’s office declined comment on the lawsuit.

Rep. Justin Fecteau, R-Augusta, proposed a bill this year that would have cut the required enrollment numbers in half and put in place a 90-day warning period for party members if enrollment fell beneath that threshold before members were unenrolled, but the measure failed to pass the panel of legislative leaders that is able to approve bills for consideration in 2020.