Sunday, January 17, 2016
In about two weeks, the Free State Project expects its 20,000th signer to agree to move to New Hampshire. Then, a five-year countdown begins for its libertarian participants to hold up their end of the bargain.
The milestone will come nearly 15 years after the first signature was penned, following a 2001 manifesto written by founder Jason Sorens, a political theorist who has a doctorate in political science from Yale and lectures at Dartmouth College.
The nonprofit group envisions relocating thousands of people to the state who would become active in various ways to severely limit the government’s scope. Nearly 2,000 signers who have already moved are playing out the idea.
Sorens said in a phone interview Friday that 18 Free Staters serve in the State House. Put another way, Free State movers, who represent 0.15 percent of the total population, comprise nearly 5 percent of the House.
Free Staters are also targeting laws through other means: by bringing a religious property tax exemption case to the Supreme Court, by challenging a state order to stop using public money to send kids to private schools, and by rallying to eliminate city restrictions on Uber.
Sorens acknowledges that most signers won’t follow through with their nonbinding commitment. Five years from now, he estimated, there will be 6,000 to 8,000 Free Staters living in New Hampshire, but he still believes that’s enough to effect change.
“Six thousand people aren’t going to outvote the rest of the state – that isn’t the idea – but they can bring ideas forward that can be tried, and then we’ll see what happens,” he said. “It could be the ideas don’t work out and we don’t have much of a long-run influence, but I think a lot of these ideas do have sound intellectual backing, and they will work once they’re tried.”
The early days
The Free State Project’s website shows a counter that has long worked its way toward “triggering the move.” It’s now at 19,150 out of 20,000 and increasing by about 50 signers a day, as the group utilizes its largest ad campaign yet during the final push.
In 2003, however, after two years of existence, that counter was already at 5,000. The Free State Project had all kinds of news media attention at that time, when it decided on New Hampshire as its destination, and organizers expected to reach 20,000 signers by 2007, Sorens said.
But after New Hampshire was chosen – mainly for its relatively small population and die-hard Live Free or Die attitude – the news media coverage fell off, and “our recruiting basically collapsed for four to five years there,” Sorens said.
The project was kick-started again in 2007 with its First 1,000 campaign, which was a microcosm of the entire Free State Project and gave people until the end of 2007 to commit to move within the next year, provided 1,000 people agreed.
It worked, but slightly less than 500 people actually moved, Sorens said, which is why he projects about one-third of the total 20,000 will follow through.
In his early writing, Sorens described ideas of government takeover and secession, which aren’t generally part of the Free State Project’s modern vocabulary. Many natives, however, were offended by these ideas and remain allergic to the Free State Project movement.
Carla Gericke, the president of the Free State Project, attributed the recent jolt in signers to an ad campaign on Facebook that targets people who like libertarian pages.
About 3 percent of the people who click on their ads go on to sign up for the Free State Project, she said. Meanwhile, 20 to 30 new movers are coming to the state each month, which is high for the winter, she said.
Next month the group will hold its annual conference in Manchester, called Liberty Forum, which will feature a video chat with National Security Agency whistle-blower Edward Snowden. Gericke said she expects this summer’s PorcFest, an annual gathering in the North Country, to see a boost after the 20,000th signature is attained.
“Certainly for PorcFest,” she said, “I think we’ll see a really big bumper year for that.”
For all the signers who haven’t yet moved, Gericke said it can take time to sell a house in another state and find a job in New Hampshire. Then there’s a group, she said, who have been waiting for the move to be “triggered.”
“It’s a little bit like a Kickstarter model, right? Like, if 20,000 people say they’ll do it, then we’ll do it,” she said.
The first movers are making it easier for those who come after them. At least one Free Stater owns a real estate company, which he uses to help his fellow “porcupines,” as participants are nicknamed.
They also spring to action to help new movers unpack and get to know the area, and Gericke said there’s a buddy program that helps people find a mechanic or a doctor.
“Honestly, I’m glad it’s taken its time because people have laid a lot of groundwork. . . . Even though, yes, it’s taken over a decade, I think that it is actually going to benefit the movement as a whole,” she said.
(Nick Reid can be reached at 369-3325 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NickBReid.)