Political parties Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Private organizations whose aim is to elect individuals who share common beliefs to public office.

The internal decisions made by political parties, which are private associations, have largely been left alone by federal and state governments. Political parties are, however, in some ways regulated by the federal and state governments, and it is with regard to these regulations that the Supreme Court has made some rulings. The Court deemed much of the regulation of parties to be a political question and, therefore, out of the Court’s jurisdiction. For example, the Court never ruled on the constitutionality of a primary election for selecting delegates to a national party convention. That is an act of a private association and as such is not subject to court supervision. In the case of political parties, it is as important to recognize what the Court has not done.

Ballot Access

However, the Court has made some rulings that have either involved or affected the ways in which parties operate. It ruled on ballot access, which regards the placement of a name or political party on the official ballot printed by a state for a general election. Williams v. Rhodes[case]Williams v. Rhodes[Williams v. Rhodes] (1968) dealt with an Ohio law that prohibited write-in votes for president and prescribed rules that made it extremely difficult for a candidate from a party other than the Republican or Democratic to get on the ballot. That law stated that if a party wanted to get its presidential candidate on the Ohio ballot, it had to get petitions signed by 15 percent of the number of people who voted in the last presidential election. It also required that those petitions be submitted by early February of an election year. Furthermore, a party seeking ballot access had to demonstrate that it had an elaborate party structure in place. This law showed tremendous favoritism to the established parties.

The Court ruled that states must allow other parties a reasonable means to get on the ballot because to do otherwise violates the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Justice Hugo L. Black, recognizing that most regulation of political parties is a political question, asserted that ballot access is a “justiciable controversy under the Constitution and cannot be relegated to the political arena.” Black argued in part from the First Amendment freedom of assembly. In the majority opinion, he stated that “the right to form a party means little if a party can be kept off the election ballot and thus denied an equal opportunity to win votes.” The Court did not rule in this case that all parties must be given ballot access. The state has a compelling interest in reasonably limiting ballot access so that the ballot is not confusing to voters. Therefore, states can enact a threshold for ballot access.

Although political parties do not have a right to be on the ballot, all political parties are permitted to exist. For example, it was never possible in the United States to outlaw the existence of the CommunistCommunism Party. The Court prohibited the forced registration of members of the U.S. Communist Party as a violation of the Fifth Amendment’s protection against self-incrimination in Albertson v. Subversive Activities Control Board[case]Albertson v. Subversive Activities Control Board[Albertson v. Subversive Activities Control Board] (1965).

Primaries and Finance

The Court ruled that states can dictate who can vote in the primary elections of the major parties. In Rosario v. Rockefeller[case]Rosario v. Rockefeller[Rosario v. Rockefeller] (1973), the Court ruled that a state could require that a resident be registered in a party at least thirty days before an election. Some states have primaries in which residents can register on election day, but the Court ruled that the Constitution does not require this in all states. The Court recognized the power of the state legislature with regard to primary elections in Democratic Party of the United States v. LaFollette[case]Democratic Party of the United States v. LaFollette[Democratic Party of the United States v. LaFollette] (1981). This case upheld open primaries, which allow citizens to vote in any primary, regardless of party affiliation. Again, a state may have an open primary, but the Constitution does not require one.

Another important way in which the Court affected the operation of political parties is in campaign finance regulation. The most important campaign spending case, Buckley v. Valeo[case]Buckley v. Valeo[Buckley v. Valeo] (1976), did not involve a political party, but instead dealt with individual campaigns. The Court ruled that some limitations on gifts made to candidates were permissible, such as $1,000 each election for a particular candidate and $5,000 each election cycle to a political action committee. The Court also ruled that independent expenditures for a candidate could not be limited because such a limitation would be a violation of the First Amendment; however Justice John Paul Stevens asserted in his opinion that “all money spent by a political party to secure the election of its candidate for the office of United States Senator should be considered a ’contribution’ to his or her campaign.” Thus Buckley v. Valeo placed a limitation on the activities of political parties with respect to individual political campaigns.

The Court addressed political party spending again in Colorado Republican Campaign Committee v. Federal Election Commission[case]Colorado Republican Campaign Committee v. Federal Election Commission[Colorado Republican Campaign Committee v. Federal Election Commission] (1996). After Buckley, the Federal Election Commission made a distinction between indirect support of federal candidates and direct support of candidates. Parties were limited in how much financial support they could directly and indirectly provide a candidate. In Colorado Republican Campaign Committee, the Court stuck down the restriction on indirect support of candidates; as a result, political parties could spend unlimited amounts of money on independent expenditures. Because of this decision, political parties can spend more on behalf of candidates.

Further Reading
  • Epstein, Leon D. Political Parties in the American Mold. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1986.
  • Green, John C., and Daniel Shea, eds. The State of the Parties: The Changing Role of Contemporary American Parties. 2d ed. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1996.
  • Rosenston, Steven, Roy Behr, and Edward Lazarus. Third Parties in America. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1996.

Davis v. Bandemer


Equal protection clause

Financing political speech

First Amendment

Fourteenth Amendment


Political parties

Rutan v. Republican Party of Illinois

Categories: History