Third Circuit to Hear Oral Argument Challenging Closed Primaries

Oral argument in the case Balsam, et al. v. Guadagno is set for March 17, 2015, before the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals. At issue in the case is whether the fundamental right to vote applies to the primary stage of the public election process.

A coalition of individual plaintiffs and nonpartisan organizations filed the lawsuit in March 2014, arguing that the election process in New Jersey grants the Republican and Democratic Parties a monopoly over the election process in the state while denying approximately 48 percent of the electorate full and equal access to public elections.

“A political party can always hold a Candidate Nomination Proceeding without the blessing or funding of the State. The issue of whether the State should fund, administer, and/or sanction the results of these proceedings requires an inquiry as to the State’s regulatory interest in doing so, balanced against the individual right to vote,” appellants argue.

To be clear, appellants are not challenging the right political parties, as private organizations, have to hold their own nomination proceedings. The challenge is that the state’s overall process does not serve a public purpose because it violates the individual rights of voters to participate in all integral stages of state elections.

“Appellants have not asked this court (and did not ask the lower court) to issue a decision that would require political parties to allow non-party members to access their Candidate Nomination Proceedings. Rather, Appellants have proceeded from the premise that the State cannot fund, administer, and sanction an integral stage of its election process that excludes a near majority of all registered voters,” appellants state in their appeal.

Since filing the lawsuit, the plaintiffs made this clear in numerous legal motions and briefs. However, New Jersey Secretary of State Kim Guadagno continues to argue that the appellants want to force political parties to allow nonmembers to participate in their candidate selection process.

Appellants ... concede the private nature of party primaries. They argue that, in fact, this is the reason for bringing the lawsuit in the first place.
Shawn M. Griffiths, IVN Editor-in-Chief
In August, the U.S. District Court in Newark ruled in favor of the defendant on the basis of this argument. The plaintiffs filed their appeal in November.

Currently, although primary elections in New Jersey are funded by taxpayers, nearly half of the electorate may not legally participate (unless they join the Republican or Democratic Party). Further, the purpose of the primary election is to elect a candidate to represent each party, not the voters in general.

What could be even more important is that this case comes at a time when both parties, depending on the state, have been fighting to close the primaries in otherwise open states. Their argument? The state cannot ‘force’ political parties to allow nonmembers to participate in ‘their’ primary elections because that is a violation of their fundamental right not to associate with nonmembers.

Appellants, in this case, concede the private nature of party primaries. They argue that, in fact, this is the reason for bringing the lawsuit in the first place: to protect the public purpose that the election process should serve.

Appellants argue that the Supreme Court has already ruled that the fundamental right to vote does extend to the primary stage of the election process in the case United States v. Classic, when it ruled that “the fundamental right to vote includes the right to vote in the primary when the primary is made an integral stage of the election.” Yet no one has challenged state election systems that fund, sanction, and administer the primaries of private organizations that deny voters outside these organizations their fundamental right to equal and meaningful access to the election process until now.

Get all the up-to-date information on the lawsuit here.