Political party system Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Democratic process in which people who share common values and political views form organizations, or parties, to promote candidates for public office who hold the same political positions.

The political party system in the United States developed outside the Constitution because many of the Founders viewed parties, which they usually referred to as “factions,” as a dangerous and negative influence on the body politic. The Founders hoped that the system they devised would check the more negative tendencies of parties or factions. Because the Constitution did not specifically mention political parties,Political parties their regulation was left largely to the individual states. This remained the standard until the 1960’s when the Civil Rights movement helped foster concern over equal voting rights and political equality.

First and Fourteenth Amendments

The increased interest in political equality and Vote, right tovoting rights resulted in cases involving the free speech and association clauses of the First Amendment and the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment being brought before the Supreme Court. In the 1980’s the Court made a number of decisions regarding political parties and voting issues. 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), the Court gave national party organizations more control over their conventions and delegate selection processes, ruling that the national party conventions, not the individual state parties, had the final say as to which state delegates would be seated and what requirements would govern their convention participation.

In Anderson v. Celebrezze[case]Anderson v. Celebrezze[Anderson v. Celebrezze] (1983), the Court declared unconstitutional an Ohio state law that required that third-party candidates must file earlier than major-party candidates. Independent presidential candidate John Anderson had brought suit because of problems he had encountered getting on the ballot in Ohio. The Court ruled that creating stricter requirements for third-party than for major party candidates discriminated against the independents.

In 1986, the Court ruled in Tashjian v. Republican Party of Connecticut that despite a state law restricting participation in primary elections to party members only, the Connecticut Republican Party, acting under its freedom of association protected by the First Amendment, could allow independent voters to participate in some of its primary elections. The Court continued in this vein in Eu v. San Francisco Democratic Committee[case]Eu v. San Francisco Democratic Committee[Eu v. San Francisco Democratic Committee] (1989), when it struck down several provisions of a California law as violations of the First Amendment free speech and association clauses. The Court ruled that the state could not forbid the party’s governing bodies from endorsing candidates in the party’s primaries and could not restrict the terms of office for state central committee chairmen nor require that the chairmanship rotate between residents of northern and southern California. The Court said the state failed to show that any compelling state interest was served by such requirements. In Norman v. Reed[case]Norman v. Reed[Norman v. Reed] and Cook County Officers Electoral Board v. Reed[case]Cook County Officers Electoral Board v. Reed[Cook County Officers Electoral Board v. Reed] (1992) the Court continued the pattern, saying that Cook County’s rules requiring candidates of new political parties to secure twice as many signatures to get on the ballot as was required of existing party candidates served no compelling state interest and violated citizens’ rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments.

Partisan Gerrymandering

Another issue affecting the degree of competitiveness and fairness of the party system is the practice of gerrymandering,Gerrymandering drawing the lines of election districts in a deliberate manner to distribute voters in a way that improves one party’s chances of winning more seats. After the 1980 U.S. Census, the Republicans, who had a majority in the state legislature, did this in Indiana, and the Democrats challenged their action in the federal courts. The Court ruled in Davis v. Bandemer[case]Davis v. Bandemer[Davis v. Bandemer] (1986) that while partisan gerrymandering was a justiciable issue (reviewable by the courts) under the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause, the results from a single election were not sufficient proof for the Court to declare a plan unconstitutional.

In California, the Democratic Party adopted a plan that was challenged by the Republicans. The Court, in Badham v. Eu[case]Badham v. Eu[Badham v. Eu] (1988), held that although partisan gerrymanders raised justiciable issues, the evidence presented by the Republican Party fell short of proving that Republican candidates were systematically denied any chance of electoral success. Therefore, although the Court indicated a willingness to review partisan gerrymandering, it did not define the standard of proof required to find a particular redistricting to be unconstitutional.


Patronage Another aspect of the party system that drew some attention from the Court was the relationship between government employees and the parties. Beginning with Elrod v. Burns[case]Elrod v. Burns[Elrod v. Burns] (1976), the Court limited the firing of public employees on purely partisan grounds. In Branti v. Finkel et al.[case]Branti v. Finkel et al.[Branti v. Finkel et al.] (1980) the Court again disallowed partisan dismissal of Rockford County, New York, county attorneys. In Rutan v. Republican Party of Illinois[case]Rutan v. Republican Party of Illinois[Rutan v. Republican Party of Illinois] (1990) the Court took such rulings a step further, holding that government employees who occupy positions where party membership is “not relevant” not only cannot be dismissed because they do not belong to the winning party but also cannot be denied such job benefits as pay increases or promotions. The effect of the Court’s decisions in these cases has been to substantially curtail the long-term practice of using patronage as a tool for building loyalty and support for the party system.

Overall the Court’s actions have made the party system more subject to control and regulation from the national level. Although the states can still act to maintain the integrity of the electoral process, the Court has been inclined to give parties more freedom to govern themselves as private associations. At the same time, the Court has acted to restrict state regulations and party rules that limited access to and citizen participation in the parties and the electoral process.

Further Reading
  • Aldrich, John H. Why Politics? The Origin and Transformation of Political Parties in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.
  • Christman, Roy, and Barbara Norrander. “A Reflection on Political Party Deregulation via the Courts: The Case of California.” Journal of Law and Politics 6 (1990): 723-742.
  • McCleskey, Clifton. “Parties at the Bar: Equal Protection, Freedom of Association, and the Rights of Political Organizations.” Journal of Politics 46 (1984): 346-368.

Assembly and association, freedom of

Buckley v. Valeo

Communist Party v. Subversive Activities Control Board


Financing political speech

Political party system

Categories: History