Case Overview

Legal Principle at Issue

Does a California blanket primary law, that allows voters to cross party lines to vote in other parties' primaries, violate the First Amendment free association rights of political parties?

Action

Reversed. Petitioning party received a favorable disposition.

Facts/Syllabus

In March 1996, California voters passed Proposition 198. Known as the Open Primary Act, the law changed the state's primary election from a closed to a blanket primary.

In a blanket primary, voters can switch primaries for different offices. For instance, a registered Democrat can vote in the Republican primary for governor, the Libertarian primary for a state representative and in the Democratic primary for another office.

Four political parties the Republican, Democratic, Libertarian and Peace and Freedom parties contend that the law infringes on their free association rights to pick and choose their own candidates. In 1997, a federal district court judge ruled the blanket primary law constitutional. On appeal, the 9th Circuit affirmed. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to review the decision on January 21, 2000.

Importance of Case

The states may enact "reasonable regulations" of parties, elections, and ballots. However, political parties possess free-association rights to advocate their political views. If a state law severely burdens a political party's free-association rights, the law must advance a compelling government interest in a narrowly tailored manner. Tashjian v. Republican Party of Connecticut,479 U.S. 208 (1986).

The First Amendment protects the "freedom to join together in furtherance of common political beliefs." A corollary of the right to associate is the right not to associate. Allowing nonparty members to vote in a party primary will dilute the political parties' core messages and impose a severe burden on the parties' free-association rights. The state could protect independent and other voters in a more narrowly tailored way by resorting to a nonpartisan blanket primary.

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