Supreme Court Cases

520 U.S. 351 (1997)

Search all Supreme Court Cases

Case Overview

Legal Principle at Issue

Whether a political party's associational rights under the First Amendment require a state to permit multiple-party candidacies on the state's election ballot.


Reversed. Petitioning party received a favorable disposition.


A Minnesota law prohibits ballot fusion, which is a practice that allows political candidates to appear on the ballot as the nominee of more than one party. While widespread in the 19th century, this practice now is prohibited in most states. These prohibitions tend to inhibit the growth of third parties by reducing their ability to ally themselves with established parties. The candidate in the Minnesota case, Andy Dawkins, was running unopposed as the nominee of the "major" Democratic-Farm-Labor party for a state representative seat. The Twin Cities Area New Party, a "minor" party under Minnesota law, wished to nominate Dawkins as its candidate for the same seat, and Dawkins was willing to appear on the ballot as a multi-party candidate. The Democratic-Farm-Labor party did not object to the New Party's nomination of Dawkins. Under the Minnesota non-fushion law, however, Dawkins was prohibited from appearing on the ballot as the nominee of the New Party. The New Party sued, but the district court upheld the Minnesota law. On appeal, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the Minnesota law severely burdened the New Party's associational rights and that the law was not narrowly tailored to achieve the law's stated purposes.

When deciding whether a state election law violates the First Amendment, the Court is to balance the statute's burden on expression against the purposes the law is designed to serve. Burdick v. Takushi, 504 U.S. 428 (1992). If the burden is significant, the statute must further a compelling state interest. If the burden is not as great, the law will be upheld if it advances an "important," though not necessarily compelling, interest.Anderson v. Celebrezze, 460 U.S. 780 (1983).

Importance of Case

The Court displayed little sensitivity to the First Amendment issues raised by the New Party and accordingly defined the associational freedoms at stake somewhat narrowly. As a result, the Court did not carefully examine the purposes offered in support of the non-fushion law. As Justice Stevens pointed out in his dissent, an issue underlying this case is the extent to which the Court should recognize preserving the two-party system as an important governmental interest. At its core, this decision suggests that the Court will not be terribly receptive to ballot access issues raised by third parties, even if these issues are couched in First Amendment terms.

The Court held that the burdens imposed on the New Party by the non-fushion law are not significant, in part because a party does not have an absolute right to have its nominee appear on the ballot. A nominee, the Court pointed out, might be ineligible for the ballot or may simply decline to represent a party. The Court then found that the purposes served by the law avoiding voter confusion and overcrowded ballots, preventing party-splintering, and preserving the two-party system were important enough to sustain the legislation. The dissent argued that the burdens were severe and that Minnesota had not demonstrated how the non-fushion law advances the stated purposes.

Cite this page