On Election Day Michigan voters will see candidates on the ballot from a national political party that really no longer exists.
The Natural Law Party dissolved as a political organization more than a dozen years ago.
Yet Natural Law Party candidates are still running for federal and state office this election cycle.
But only in Michigan.
The Unusual Candidate
On a recent day the only Natural Law Party candidate for the U.S. Senate in the nation rummages through a small metal filing cabinet in his kitchen.
He’s looking for correspondence between himself and the late U.S. President Gerald Ford.
Stacks of books line the walls of his nearby living room, in-depth studies of issues like U.S.–Russia relations or alternative “approval” voting and other electoral reforms.
But John Howard Wilhelm has no illusions about his chances as a candidate in Michigan’s upcoming general election.
“It clearly would be an incredible accident if I were to win,” he says.
Wilhelm had persistently emailed the chair of Michigan’s Natural Law party for years with his views on third-party candidacies.
“I pursued it because I just wanted to see if I could stir things up…You’re not gonna get reform out of either the Republicans or the Democrats, it has to come from the outside.” – John Howard Wilhelm
But this year Wilhelm decided he could best make his voice heard as a candidate and pitched the idea to the state chair.
One visit later from the party’s gubernatorial nominee sent to vet him and Wilhelm was in.
“It’s unusual because almost in any other state you couldn’t do anything like it. It’s very hard to get on the ballot to run for the Senate,” Wilhelm said. “Actually in Michigan, because of the Natural Law Party, it isn’t — and it wasn’t — difficult.”
Wilhelm slaps his palm on the kitchen table in front of him.
“I pursued it because I just wanted to see if I could stir up things. And they do need to be stirred up. Because I think we’re in a desperate situation in terms of our political system. And you’re not gonna get reform out of either the Republicans or the Democrats, it has to come from the outside,” he says.
A Mystical Approach
The Natural Law Party was founded to take a new approach to politics, based on the principles of Transcendental Meditation as designed by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
Yes, the Maharishi who tutored The Beatles.
The publisher of Ballot Access News, election expert Richard Winger, says from the outset the Natural Law Party was a very different kind of political organization.
“The way it was formed was very unusual. It was formed instantaneously all over the world,” Winger says. “I think there were about 70 countries that had a Natural Law Party. They were all started in 1992 because the leader of the Transcendental Meditation movement decided he wanted his followers to start a party.”
The idea, and the party, quickly became something of a cause celebre.
Former Beatle George Harrison played a benefit concert for the party and the Beach Boys helped raise funds for it.
Winger says Natural Law ran over 50 candidates in a single election year in California, a record, he estimates, for a third-party.
And it attracted celebrity candidates like the late Canadian magician Doug Henning, who ran for office unsuccessfully in both his native country and in the United Kingdom, where British law permits candidates from Commonwealth nations.
In a campaign video filled with a background of rainbows, Henning noted, “I’m an expert in making things disappear. My Natural Law Party will make the problems of the nation disappear as darkness disappears with the onset of light…Stress, strain and problems in national life will be eliminated.”
The party touted the scientific principles it said underlined Transcendental Meditation as a way to address everything from prisons to the military.
The Transcendental Tide Turns
Natural Law eventually ran its own U.S. presidential ticket in 2000.
But it barely made a whimper in the election.
The Maharishi withdrew his support, membership dwindled, financial problems mounted and the national party in the U.S. disbanded in 2004.
“Ballot access is totally controlled by state law. There are no federal laws about (it.) So it doesn’t really make any difference if the Natural Law Party nationally dissolved itself as long as the state chair of the Natural Law Party of Michigan wants to keep the party going.” – Ballot Access News publisher Richard Winger
A few state chapters carried on, some merging with other parties.
But by this election cycle, a database of all 2018 electoral ballots in the U.S. compiled by the National Institute on Money in Politics reveals Natural Law Party candidates are only running for state and federal office on the Michigan ballot.
Election expert Richard Winger says Michigan’s arcane regulations make it harder to get on the ballot than in most states, but easier to stay on once a party has gained access.
“In the United States ballot access is totally controlled by state law. There are no federal laws about ballot access. That’s pretty unusual in the world,” Winger says. “We’re one of only two countries in which the ballot access laws are not written by the national government. The other is Switzerland. So it doesn’t really make any difference if the Natural Law Party nationally dissolved itself as long as the state chair of the Natural Law Party of Michigan wants to keep the party going.”
Ballot Access And Changing The World
Attorney Doug Dern, chair of Michigan’s Natural Law Party, says he definitely wants to keep the party on the state ballot.
Dern, who is a candidate himself for Michigan’s Supreme Court, says retaining ballot access, even without the backing of a national organization, has allowed the party to become a kind of refuge for those whose political views stray from the mainstream.
“What I’ve done as state party chair is opened it up to an open forum for anybody who wants to run other than Democrat or Republican,” Dern says. “My belief is right wing, left wing, same bird. We still try to educate people on the concepts of the Natural Law Party, of scientific solutions to government. But by the same token if you’ve got different ideas we won’t keep you out.”
Dern notes that Ralph Nader, for one, used the Natural Law Party to make his 2008 presidential bid in Michigan.
“My belief is right wing, left wing, same bird. We still try to educate people on the concepts of the Natural Law Party, of scientific solutions to government. But by the same token if you’ve got different ideas we won’t keep you out.” – Michigan Natural Law Party Chair Doug Dern
Having that access is vital for a democracy to fully function, Dern says, no matter how small of a dent an organization like the Natural Law Party actually makes in an election.
“People say ‘I would never vote for a third party, that would waste my vote.’ With that mentality it WILL waste your vote. If we start voting third-parties and take some of the power away from the Democrats and the Republicans, it could really change the world,” Dern says.
For U.S. Senate candidate John Howard Wilhelm, changing some perceptions would be enough.
He says his campaign has consisted mainly of passing out brochures at a farmers’ market, answering candidate surveys for a few newspapers and crafting a website with his policy positions.
“Why not? If you don’t try you don’t accomplish anything. If you do try you’re likely not to accomplish, in many cases, anything. But once in a while you can.”
And Wilhelm says if he, or the Natural Law Party, can make an impact on voters, with a chance to make more inroads in the future, than in a way the election is already won.
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