Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Why The Libertarian Party Must Return to a Unified Membership Plan (UMP)

The Unified Membership Plan was a construct that the Libertarian Party implemented in the late 1990's.  It was designed to increase the funding available to state affiliates, and to make those state affiliates partners in membership growth for the Libertarian Party as a whole.

I am proposing that the Party re-adopt UMP.  Some lessons learned from its previous iteration can be adopted to make it work better.

The premise of UMP is fairly simple: The LNC concentrated on membership growth and renewals; while the states concentrated on activity-building.

Here is the basic writeup of UMP (as well as UMP-II) terms:


UMP-II was a modified form of UMP designed to increase the incentive for state affiliates to work harder on donor development; reducing the tendency of national being the main leg of the LP entity trying to get people to donate every year.

During California's experience with UMP (1996-2004), for example, the state party ran a record number of candidates and elected a record number of the non-partisan ones, opened up a couple of offices, hired an Executive Director and additional staffing to handle all of the added workload when you have up to 6,392 dues paying, card carrying members.

For California and many other states, UMP was a great division of labor which helped both the LNC and the state parties grow substantially.

The Libertarian Party's previous dalliance with UMP was between 1995 and 2004.  Only the LNC members who voted to abandon the Unified Membership Plan can state their personal reasons, but opponents agitating for abolition used several talking points (and continue to use them in arguing against its reintroduction).  Among them:

1) "It was too expensive."  Kinda.  It did cost the LP $12 for every $25 membership, more for the higher-level memberships.  As explained elsewhere, the solution to this problem was to raise dues enough to catch up with inflation.

2) "LPHQ can't send checks to non-FEC filing committees."  True, but there are ways to work within the law regardless, as explained elsewhere.

3) "It's welfare."  Bah.

... and other statements I'm doubtless forgetting.

Probably the biggie, however, was that the Executive Director at the time (2004) didn't understand it, didn't want to understand it, regarded state affiliates as competition rather than partners, didn't want to have to allocate staff time to mess with it, and saw the trendline he was allowing to happen (declining revenue) and preferred to keep the (declining) revenue in the office (rather than figuring out how to improve fundraising).

Interestingly, at the same time the LP was abandoning the shared-dues concept, a very similar program was adopted by the national Democratic Party, under the direction of Howard Dean.  They called it their "50-state strategy", and it was a revenue-sharing program designed to fund organizing projects among their state affiliates.  A lot of the grassroots activity among Democrats in 2007-2008 was due in no small part to field organizing work in every state, funded by the national revenue-sharing plan.

In any case, none of the reasons to abandon it were particularly valid, as there were ways to overcome each deficiency with a relatively simple change in behavior.

In any case, I believe it is time to re-examine UMP, and to re-implement it.

This article shall explore the idea and address some of the fallacies surrounding the program.

What Would It Take To Implement SOUMP (Son of UMP)

I'd like to preface here by acknowledging the valid argument that re-implementing UMP does not require LNC action at all.  There is absolutely nothing stopping LPHQ from reintroducing UMP as an add-on to normal dues.  All it would take is an alteration to membership forms to add a few lines to offer renewing/new members the option of adding state dues to their donation.

We already do this in Virginia:


However, it would probably be best to do this via the bylaws, so those who think UMP is "welfare" can no longer engage in shenanigans to defeat/hamstring it.

Admittedly, it may be tough to get a proposal through the Bylaws Committee.  Past Bylaws Committees have made into an art form 1) engaging in shenanigans designed to help or hamper various factions; and 2) stuffing the Bylaws Session agenda so full of lard that truly necessary motions would be impossible to get to the floor.

FWIW, I think it would require two separate motions.  First, to bring the $25 dues up to inflation-adjusted reality $40 at least; but better to $45 or $50); and then a separate one regarding UMP.

Once again, getting a dues increase and UMP on the convention floor for a vote is within the LNC's power.  However, with college graduates on the LNC calling UMP welfare, I suspect there will be no action on this.

It is appropriate here to address some of the criticisms of UMP:


Opponents have often claimed the UMP was "welfare" to state affiliates.  It would be best to eschew this sort of trash-talk; for when you claim UMP is welfare, you are inferring that the state party activists who benefit from it, and supporters of the UMP itself, are welfareites.  This is insulting and demeaning -- and unnecessary.

I suspect the opponents of UMP would not care for the inference that they are thieves for hoarding financial resources at the national level that actually belong to the entire party, or that they would care to be labeled "insane" or "ignorant" for denying the many good things that UMP wrought during its brief existence.

Perhaps the individuals claiming UMP was "welfare" are arguing from ignorance.  I don't know.  But Virginia and many other states spent considerable sums of money recruiting UMP members.  I know that membership-raisers in Virginia were costing the Virginia LP a couple of thousand dollars, at their peak.  I know at one point California sent its entire membership recruiting budget (~$5,000??) to the LNC for purposes of soliciting support from new and renewal donors.

Although LPHQ itself has the records to prove this, I can also actually personally vouch for this.  I occasionally helped out at LPHQ in DC during 1997-2003.  I distinctly remember processing *huge* batches of memberships the California LP and others had sent us.  Often the envelopes I processed had a hundred or more at a time.

Unlike those who keep repeating the mantra that UMP was "welfare", a lot of state parties helped with signing up members in rather large numbers.  California, Michigan, Virginia, Washington, Oregon, and a dozen or so other states sent in batches of renewals and new members, monthly or better.  California sent them weekly or better for a time.

I know.  I was THERE, in the office, opening the envelopes, and processing them.

UMP wasn't welfare -- it was *partnering*.

To the extent that some state parties didn't really do anything in return for getting thousands of dollars every year from national, perhaps "welfare" was an appropriate term.  One or two of the states that failed to get ballot access in 2004 come to mind.

However, it certainly wasn't welfare for most of the state parties.  Virginia, which had for all of its existence prior to UMP required national help on its ballot drive, while under UMP, had been able to pay its own petitioners when needed and has completed all statewide drives since 1998, without any extra help from national.  Other states similarly pulled themselves into better performance with UMP funds.

In sum, UMP was not welfare, and those who think it was need to head back to the books.

UMP Still Exists

Second, a limited form of UMP still exists in many states, in that the state parties routinely collect dues for the national party, and forward them along to LPHQ.  All the formal "UMP" is was this same model, acting in reverse.

[Interestingly, when the Virginia LP (or the many other states that do it) send packages of memberships to national, no college graduates from Indiana or anywhere else call it "welfare".]

"We Can't Do It Any More Because of BCRA"

Opponents claim McCain-Feingold prevents flow between state & national.  It's just that the state LP has to set up a 'federal' bank account and become a federal-filing committee.  **One** of the primary reasons given to eliminate UMP was because the LNC had been sending checks to non-filing state committees, and the practice had to stop due to McCain-Feingold.  In the states that didn't become filing federal committees, it was usually due to an inability to find a volunteer to keep the books required.

In a small affiliate, this can be a deal-killer.

However, there is a way to get to the same ends via different means. 

Instead of ending UMP, a better solution would have been for the LNC to establish a "field coordination" committee, dump the UMP money of the non-filing states into it, and use that committee to do party-building projects in the nonfiling states.

Or perhaps set upa  regional affiliate.  Aggregate the money state parties were due and have one filing regional entity that will handle the reports for each state party that is a member of the regional entity.  The cost of paying the contractor who does the reports could be paid from each state's portion of shared revenue.

Libertarian Party members really need to get out of the thinking-small business.  The D's and R's spend millions of dollars on consultants who have figured out ways to work within existing laws and still get done what they need to get done.  We can do the same or similar things.

"It Was a Bad Deal For National"

Opponents of UMP cite the fact that giving state affiliates $12 of every $25 membership meant the national LP was regularly "sucking wind" on the program.

Once again, this is extremely misleading.

If one cites only the $25 membership revenue, sure, the LNC only netting $13 wasn't all that hot an idea.  However, in the peak years of UMP -- 1996 through 2002 -- the average contribution per member was about $76.  Giving the state parties $12 of that doesn't sound so insurmountable.

What did hurt national with regard to UMP was the fact that the LNC ignored for two decades its duty to adjust dues for inflation.  The $25 dues set in 1990 is about $43 in 2012.  Once the LNC did finally get around to doing something about the dues rate, it first increased dues to $50, then lowered them to $0, then after this bit of insanity went public, complete with demands for "executive session, secret votes", the convention decided to steady the ship and take the decision out of the hands of the LNC entirely.

Now, we're stuck.

But not really.  The LNC does still have the ability to present the need for increasing dues to the national convention.  A series of articles, presenting a balance of opinions on the matter, in LPNews in advance of the convention, will probably have the desired effect of making delegates think on the matter.

That can only be a good thing.


National could simply use the question as a fundraising excuse (which is what every crisis should be used as).  Send a survey to the membership in letter form, asking what they thought the dues should be, make the case in the letter as to why they needed to increase (complete with a scanned graphic of the postal rates we were paying USPS from the Domestic Mail Manual of 1991 vs 2006), and *ask* the members to decide - oh, and to vote their preference with a donation for their chosen dues rate.  Then make a recommendation to the convention in the direction the respondents suggest.

If members are treated as adults, they will jump on board when it's needed.

"Some People Don't Want Anything To Do With National (state, etc)"

Someone said to me a couple of years ago:

"I know a lot of state LP members consider the national party to be
superfluous and don't feel the need to pay dues/belong to both.  I
don't have any stats on it, but I imagine there are also national
members (like me) who want little or nothing to do with their state
parties for various reasons.  There needs to be a reason why someone
should belong to both, especially if it involves doubling the dues to
do so, or you will have a lot of folks opting to belong to neither."

I've heard variations on this repeated so much that if I had a nickel for each time, I would probably have enough to buy a new car by now.

In my direct experience with selling memberships, it is more likely to be an annoyance for a member to be approached first by national, then by the state LP, then by a local LP, for membership dues.  **ALL THREE** levels of the LP should be offering one catch-all dues rate.  $50 is fine; $75 would be even better.

It all depends on how you approach the issue; or, perhaps, how you "present the sale".

I've been selling memberships in the LP now in a serious way since about 1995.  In 1998 I started counting, and to this day I have about 800 memberships collected as a result of some action of mine (as membership chairman for LPVA, putting membership forms in front of people at Richmond LP meetings, going around the crowd with membership forms at the 2000 Browne election-night party and asking people, etc).  I've used many variations of membership forms, and none of them have a notably different "sale" rate.  The one I use now is a "unified membership" form:


In using that form, *almost all* people who sign up select the $50 national & state rate.  Notice on the form that we have an option to make a local donation also.

As mentioned earlier, one way national could offer a "unified membership" plan without any major heartaches is to simply add a "state and local dues option" to membership forms, and make that the most prominent choice (like I do on the LPVA form).  Most state LP's charge $25 or less.  National could simply do what I've done with the Virginia form, and forward the state dues to the states.  Yes, the recipients would have to be FEC filers, but see above.

If this sort of thing is set up, it would be best if national offered this to all state parties as long as the state parties promised to handle the distribution of the local portion themselves (in Virginia we did this quarterly).