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Do You Have to Join a Party to Vote? Third Circuit to Decide

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On March 5, 2014, the Independent Voter Project, supported by a broad coalition of organizations from across the country, filed suit in New Jersey federal court, arguing that New Jersey’s closed primary election system is unconstitutional as it is conducted for the private benefit of two increasingly unpopular and private political parties to the complete exclusion of the 47 percent of independent and third-party voters in the state.

As predicted, the state’s political party machines, along with New Jersey’s elected officials, didn’t like the Independent Voter Project’s argument. Judge Stanley Chesler dismissed the case at the circuit level on summary judgment, citing opinions out of context. Chesler’s opinion cited precedent concerning an independent voter’s right to participate in Republican and Democratic primaries and he actually suggested that, among other things, “a voter who feels disenfranchised … should simply join [a] party.”

On Tuesday, March 3, in a major development, the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals granted oral argument in the case to be heard on March 17, 2015, in Philadelphia.

Though it’s a long, long road to actually winning a final judgment, for oral argument to be heard in the Third Circuit is a huge advance and should be celebrated for its potential impact on the movement for nonpartisan election reform.

Most politicos and political observers understand that the vast majority of elections are decided in primaries. Thus, disenfranchising independent voters at the primary stage should be recognized as a violation of the right to equal protection under the law.

Most simply, it’s just not right.

The Independent Voter Project’s attorneys will continue to argue in federal appeals court:

Specifically, the Independent Voter Project’s suit asserts two main grievances under federal law:

  1. New Jersey’s closed primary system violates a voter’s First Amendment right of non-association as voters are required to join a political party to participate in the taxpayer-funded primary process; and,
  2. New Jersey’s closed primary system violates the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause as the primary system gives political parties and their members superior access to the election franchise, which has the effect of diluting the influence of voters who choose not to join the Republican or Democratic parties.

Additionally, the suit argues that the closed primary system violates New Jersey’s state constitutional prohibition against the private use of public funds.

The Independent Voter Project has never challenged the right of the parties to have private and exclusive primary elections. In fact, their suit supports this fundamental constitutional right of private parties. But the Independent Voter Project also asserts the fundamental, constitutional right of the individual voter to fully participate in the public election process without being forced to join a private organization.

So, on Tuesday, March 17, on appeal, the Independent Voter Project will ask the court to answer the questions originally asked:

  • Are the State of New Jersey’s non-presidential primary elections an integral stage of the election process in New Jersey?
  • Does every voter have a fundamental right to vote in all integral stages of an election?
  • Do appellants state a claim under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution when the state creates two classes of voters: (i) registered voters who ‘qualify’ to vote in primary elections by virtue of joining the Democratic or Republican political parties; and, (ii) registered voters who are not ‘qualified’ to vote in primary elections because they have not joined the Republican or Democratic parties?
  • Do appellants state a claim under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution when the state requires voters to join the Republican or Democratic parties as a condition to gaining access to an integral stage of the state’s election process?
  • Did the lower court err by relying on precedent related to a political party’s right to control their candidate nomination proceedings, rather than precedent related to rights of individual voters to participate in the election process?

Big, sweeping changes don’t come easily in this country — and for very good reason. And this suit is asking for a big, sweeping change.

At the core, the argument comes down to a simple question: for whose benefit are elections held? Should those elections be paid for, administered, and conducted by the state for the benefit of private political parties? Or, should elections be about protecting and defending the rights of each individual voter – regardless of their partisan affiliation or non-affiliation – to have an equal and meaningful vote in the political process?

As voters in New Jersey and states across the country continue to leave the traditional political parties in droves, the courts will have more and more difficulty in ruling against the simplicity of the Independent Voter Project’s argument. And, regardless of the outcome of this particular court case, the momentum for nonpartisan, independent election reform that supports the rights of individual voters over private political parties is gathering speed.

If you are interested in learning more about this specific case and the legal and political challenges and opportunities ahead, you can join a conference call for media and supporters next Monday, March 16, at 2:00 p.m. EDT. Click here to register for the conference call.

Join the discussion Please be relevant and respectful.

The Independent Voter Network is dedicated to providing political analysis, unfiltered news, and rational commentary in an effort to elevate the level of our public discourse.


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692 comments
C T Weber
C T Weber

People seem to gather together with other people of like minds. In politics these groupings are called parties.There are some people who don't want to hang with folks that think like them. They like to call themselves independent. In any case, each of the parties, Democratic, Republican, or an alternative party of one sort or another like to decide who they want to run against who the other sides wants. This was usually done behind closed doors in smoke filled rooms. The little guy and gal got left out.  Money and corruption ruled the day. Then along came the reformers.  They demanded that they have a say in the decision making process. So the Democrats had their primaries, the Republicans had their primaries and the other parties had their primaries. Even the independents, who did not want to join with any of the other groups had their own primaries. Now the independents want us to go back to the good old days when decisions were made behind closed doors.

There is a big myth being pushed out there that partisan elections are being held for private organizations. Not true.There are non-ballot qualified parties that are private organizations because the state does not tell them how to operate. Most states have rules that the ballot qualified parties must follow.  That is because by getting on the ballot and subjecting themselves to state laws they become public organizations.

tanstaafl1
tanstaafl1

Surprise, yet another redundant article supporting IVN's admitted "progressive" advocacy position ((see home page)).  


I agree that all parties/politicians should generally pay their own way. That includes incumbents paying (or their party) paying the real  FULL COST  of govt transportation to fund raisers, conventions, and other party events.


That said, the political proposal that non-members should  vote on the future of private organizations without joining is unreasonable and should fail.


 I would sure like it if I and fellow taxpayers could vote in university faculty meetings (many are taxpayer funded) , or in teachers union elections, 4-H club meetings, or maybe just walk into Congress and vote.

One of our American freedoms is the freedom of association.  We should protect that right not attack it.  If you want to vote in a primary, stop whinning and join a party ---- get involved.

William Waugh
William Waugh

@tanstaafl1 "the political proposal that non-members should  vote on the future of private organizations without joining is unreasonable and should fail."  A political party is not a private organization in this sense if it has a ballot line in a public election.  This ballot line should be taken away.  All candidates should have to meet the same requirements to be on the ballot, regardless of whether a private organization nominates or endorses them.  You can't have it both ways.  Either private, without special power, or public and channeling the public's power.

Jelly
Jelly

@tanstaafl1 "If you want to celebrate America's appreciation for individual rights, join one of two political parties" ... lol

Ben Hardin
Ben Hardin

Partisan primaries could very well be eliminated as they narrow the field of candidates on the general election ballot to what would certainly be an unnecessary scale if we should replace our current prevalent antiquated pluralistic voting system with a more fair system that is majoritarian. See the voting system described in the March 8 posting on the FB page Electoral Reform for a More Favorable Congress.

Dave Kisor
Dave Kisor

It is.  In Hawai'i, with the exception of County Council, you have to vote party line in the primary.

Terry Mingus
Terry Mingus

The primary decides who runs in the big show. If independents are not allowed to vote in the primary for people not in the two main parties the rest is moot.

KateJones2
KateJones2

I live in Maryland and was horrified to learn that as a non-affiliated voter, the only offices I could vote for in the primary were the School Board.  When I lived in Virginia, voters got to pick one primary to vote in, regardless of affiliation.  I feel this is disenfranchisement.

Cal Jennings
Cal Jennings

I should be able to vote on whom I choose. I might choose a Democrat for one position, a Republican for another position, a Libertarian for a third position, and a Green Party candidate for a fourth depending upon whom I feel will best carry out the duties of that position.

Prince Duncan
Prince Duncan

I favor term limits for ALL elected/appointed officials and a mandatory retirement age of 70 for all judges/justices along with public funding of elections, abolishing political parties, lobbying, PACs, and banning foreign influence in our electoral process. Also, I don`t understand why people just want to focus only on reforming the federal government when the states and localities are as corrupt as the feds.

David McDonald
David McDonald

Im sick of corporate republicans and socialist libtards. Stop the lobbying and clean up Washington.

Prince Duncan
Prince Duncan

All political parties need to be abolished before they destroy our country.

Heidi West
Heidi West

Any U.S. Citizen over 18 and not restricted by convictions tahat already disallow voting should be able to vote.

Tommy Hancock
Tommy Hancock

NO! Just have to prove you are a citizen- No Gender, No Race, not even a party-

David Richter
David Richter

No you shouldn't, And you shouldn't have to join a union to work either.

C T Weber
C T Weber

but if the union is forced to represent you then you should pay your fair share of the cost.  A fair share fee.

Clark Muscat
Clark Muscat

Historically Americans, ALL AMERICANS, wanted a say in not only who wins elections, but who runs in those elections. This was considered progressive because it was expanding the participation of "the people" in democracy. Let me say it again, it was expanding democracy. So now led by one party on this issue nationally, we have closed the primary, thus excluding the ease of independent participation in the selection process. Now, only party members or leaders get to decide who runs in elections. The primary helped this nation get the "selection process" out of the smoke filled rooms of only powerful and wealthy party leaders.

Michael R Kaylor
Michael R Kaylor

All I had to read was the title and Hell No! In fact the opposite is more true, if you are in a party you maybe should not be allowed to vote?

Welaka Phishhed
Welaka Phishhed

I live in SE Louisiana. I've been voting for 40 years. At 18 yo, when I first registered as "NonPartisan", which was classified as "Other", under Party Affiliation. A few years later, and a new address, I re registered only to find that my affiliation had been changed to "Independent". After a heated discussion, it was changed back to"NonPartisan" and remained so to this day!

Frank Jenkins
Frank Jenkins

The answer is ... If you do not vote in a Primary... you can vote for who ever you want regardless of party !

Sam Levi
Sam Levi

Don't let this go to SCOTUS. It will be a unanimous decision for yes.

Joel Elrod Melsha
Joel Elrod Melsha

No. Why are our tax dollars being wasted to answer such an obvious question?

Sherry Davis
Sherry Davis

It should be one's business who you want to vote for.