Be Careful What You Wish For: Private Political Parties, Public Primaries, and State Constitutional Restrictions
29 Pages Posted: 10 Jul 2019
Date Written: July 8, 2019
Political parties always disliked the Progressive Era changes that pulled the entire electorate into nominating candidates. Why, after all, should non-party members participate in the affairs and choices of private organizations? Over the course of a century, Democrats, Republicans, and minor parties repeatedly mounted lawsuits to attack new primary laws, and they eventually prevailed on a key constitutional issue: the First Amendment right of association. But when political actors access the courts for strategic purposes, they can get caught in the vagaries of history and public attitudes, with outcomes they might not like. This essay focuses on the history of Washington State’s “direct primary” and “blanket primary” systems, the repeated lawsuits challenging them, and the freedom of association doctrine that propelled the blanket primary’s 2004 demise. It then recounts the blowback from Washington voters, who enacted a “top two” primary system that sidelined the political parties by sending the two highest vote-getters to the general election regardless of political affiliation. It asserts that remaining aspects of Washington’s election system might violate the state’s own constitution, and that things could get worse than ever for the parties, perhaps disrupting precinct officer elections and even the state’s presidential primary. How did the political parties wind up at odds with their own voters, with an outcome opposite to what they intended? This essay suggests that the answer lies in a web of conflicts: between litigation and political strategies; between the federal and state constitutions; and between the First Amendment’s protections of freedom of association, the late nineteenth century populist constitutional ban on public assistance to private entities, and the early twentieth century progressive goal of forcing private political parties to open their processes to the voting public. It concludes that long-term litigation strategies to address political issues can fail to achieve their objectives when those lawsuits overlook historical policy choices and ignore popular sentiments entrenched in the national and state constitutions.
Keywords: Elections, Election Law, Primary Elections, Free Speech, First Amendment, State Constitutional Law
JEL Classification: K19, K39, K49
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation