JP Hollembaek is a 27-year-old college student, a social rights activist, and an Iraq War veteran—he's also the country's first-ever Pirate Party candidate, and on Tuesday Hollembaek filed paperwork to run for state representative in Massachusetts.
Like other Pirate Party members, Hollembaek scoffs at copyright and patent laws, believing intellectual property should be shared universally. But some of their other ideas are less radical—government should be more transparent, corporations aren't people, and the Internet shouldn't be censored.
"Copyright is where the Pirate Party started, but that's just one plank," Hollembaek says. "We've decided focusing on personal privacy and government transparency is our major issue. The government knows too much about what we're doing, and we don't know enough about what they're doing."
Hollembaek will challenge incumbent Democrat Thomas Golden Jr. in Massachusetts' 16th Middlesex District, which serves Lowell—about 30 miles from Boston. Golden has held office for 14 years and hasn't been challenged in four.
But even if Hollembaek doesn't win, that's not the point, he says.
"We're building an institutional memory of the party. Right now, I'm the face, but I'm doing this so I can let people know we're here," he says. "Even if I lose, the party will win."
Although Hollembaek is the one running for office, the party's official "captain," James O'Keefe, has been helping him along the way. O'Keefe knows a thing or two about elections—he ran for treasurer of Massachusetts in both 2002 and 2006 as a member of the Green-Rainbow Party, scoring 16 percent of the vote in 2006.
O'Keefe and a few others formed the Massachusetts Pirate Party in 2010 after seeing the party's success in Sweden and Germany. In those countries, members of the Pirate Party sit in legislative houses. While the Massachusetts Pirates were inspired by those parties, O'Keefe says his party is different.
"That's the thing about pirates—we're willing to borrow from one another. People can take and remix and reuse as they please," he says. "We're going down our own path. Sweden has a different electoral system, a different culture. There are limits to what we can do here."
For now, that means starting small and focusing on local races. Since 2010, about 30 people have officially registered to vote as pirates in Massachusetts. About 40 people attended the party's first annual convention in March, where they talked about running for office, fighting copyrights, and Kopimism, the file-sharing religion.
So far, similar parties have been set up in Kansas, Washington, Oklahoma, and Florida, although Hollembaek is the first Pirate Party member to run for office.
He'll have an uphill race against Golden. According to Tim Storey, an elections analyst with the National Conference of State Legislatures, just 23 of the more than 7,000 American state legislators are from a third party or independent. Every election year, about 10 percent of candidates in general elections aren't affiliated with Democrats or Republicans.
In recent years, libertarians, the Green Party, and the Tea Party have emerged as potentially viable third-party candidates in state elections. New England might be an ideal location for the Pirate Party to make inroads. The Vermont Progressive Party is the most successful third party in the country, holding seven seats in that state's legislative bodies.
"Massachusetts is democratic with a capital 'D,'" says O'Keefe. "But years ago, it was Republican, and the majority of the voters are registered independent. More people here are interested in hearing about some alternative ideas."
Jason Koebler is a science and technology reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow him on Twitter or reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.