A political party is an association formed by a group of people who share the same ideas about a country’s governance. Every citizen holds a constitutional right to organize with like-minded citizens to form a political party and to attain some common political goals[i]. The right to form a political party is derived from the constitutional right of association, free speech, and equal protection.
A political party is a voluntary association formed out of the free will and consent of those who created it. A political party upholds certain principles regarding public policies of a government. A political party seeks to attain and maintain political power within a government.
Some courts have observed that political parties are only political instrumentalities. Political parties are in no sense government agencies, because they only provide nominees for the people to vote in the general elections. Nomination of members by a political party for a general election is not a state’s business as the state knows no parties[ii].
Courts have also made divergent observation in some cases and stated that since political parties select candidates for almost all the public offices, they are not mere political instrumentalities and they are acting as state agencies. As a state agency, a political party is prohibited from violating the laws of the U.S. and making any discrimination[iii].
The term political party is often defined in election law statutes. The guideline for determining whether an organization or association is a political party will be the statutory definition. Apart from the guidelines given in the election statutes, an organization must also secure a minimum percentage of votes in an anticipated election.
The reason behind creating guidelines for a political party is to protect the state’s substantial interest in preventing purely frivolous and insubstantial attempts to designate party affiliation on the registration form. It also helps to reduce the state’s administrative burden in handling minor political parties[iv].
Political parties often meet to modify and regulate the party rules. A political party meeting is called a party convention. In the absence of a statute controlling the political party, the party convention will determine the election qualifications[v]. A party convention is the meeting of all electors and delegates representing the political party. A political party’s standing committee and the candidates for public offices are elected in a party convention.
However, the political party’s representatives are elected as per the guidelines laid down in the election statutes. Any withdrawal order of a delegate from a convention will only prohibit a candidate from participating in the convention. Such a withdrawal will not affect the right to proceed with the convention business[vi].
Generally, a political party consists of committees called political party committees. Political party committees are groups formed by party members who have the authority to frame a party’s internal organization rules. According to election law statutes, political parties are to form both state and county central committees. The members of a political party committee do not share in any sovereign power of the government[vii]. Their duty is limited to representing the party’s interest[viii].
The right to associate with like-minded citizens in a political party is not absolute and is subject to a state regulation. The U.S. constitution attributes to the states a broad power to make rules about the times, places and manner of holding elections for senators and representatives[ix]. But the state regulations should not go beyond that which is required for establishing a peaceful election procedure. A state regulation cannot insulate the two party systems from minor parties for attaining the goal of stability in the political systems[x]. State regulations must also protect a minor party’s freedom of association and rights[xi].
Similarly, state regulations cannot be interpreted to protect political parties from the consequences arising from internal disturbance in the political party[xii]. However there have been instances where courts have asserted that the state through regulations can favor the two party systems as against the minor parties to ensure stability in the state[xiii].
In the absence of an express statutory provision, a political party’s internal affairs are governed by the party rules[xiv]. However the party cannot make any rules that are contrary to the statute and such contrary rules will be null and void[xv]. In some occasions, the political party is given the right to determine the internal questions arising within the political party. Here the political parties are free from judicial supervision. Thus the common-law principle of judicial restraint permits the political party to conduct the political processes without undue interference[xvi]. The political party can decide on the following matters without judicial interference:
- on matters of party discipline and governance;
- on disputes within a political party about the election of its executive officers, committee persons, or convention delegates; and
- on matters relating to candidate’s nomination for public office[xvii].
However, if the above mentioned matters are subject to a legislation or statute and if there is violation of such legislation or statute then the political party’s decision will be subject to judicial review[xviii].
The functions of a political party include:
- to adopt and execute the political party’s principles in the governmental affairs.
- to introduce new laws and alter old laws according to the situations existing in the country through the political party’s elected members in congress[xix].
- to prescribe rules and regulations defining qualifications of membership.
- to control activities in congress through its members in congress.
- to implement state welfare policies through the government formed by its members. For example, free education for all youngsters between the age of five and 18 years.
- to change the law or regulation that does not suit the state with the help of its members in congress.
[i] State ex rel. Coker-Garcia v. Blunt, 849 S.W.2d 81 (Mo. Ct. App. 1993).
[ii] Robinson v. Holman, 181 Ark. 428 (Ark. 1930).
[iii] Lackey v. United States, 107 F. 114 (6th Cir. Ky. 1901).
[iv] Rainbow Coalition of Oklahoma v. Oklahoma State Election Bd., 844 F.2d 740 (10th Cir. Okla. 1988).
[v] Democratic-Farmer-Labor State Cent. Committee v. Holm, 227 Minn. 52 (Minn. 1948).
[vi] State ex rel. Granvold v. Porter, 11 N.D. 309 (N.D. 1902).
[vii] State ex rel. Wright v. Carter, 319 S.W.2d 596 (Mo. 1958).
[viii] People ex rel. Kell v. Kramer, 328 Ill. 512 (Ill. 1928).
[ix] Tashjian v. Republican Party, 479 U.S. 208 (U.S. 1986).
[x] Timmons v. Twin Cities Area New Party, 520 U.S. 351 (U.S. 1997).
[xi] San Francisco County Democratic Cent. Committee v. March Fong Eu, 826 F.2d 814 (9th Cir. Cal. 1987).
[xii] Cool Moose Party v. Rhode Island, 183 F.3d 80 (1st Cir. R.I. 1999).
[xiii] Grebner v. State, 480 Mich. 939 (Mich. 2007).
[xiv] Matter of Independence Party State Comm. of the State of New York v. Berman, 2006 NY Slip Op 2757, 1 (N.Y. App. Div. 2d Dep’t 2006).
[xv] Smith v. Pigeon, 174 Misc. 2d 97 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. 1997).
[xvi] Republican Party of Connecticut v. Tashjian, 770 F.2d 265 (2d Cir. Conn. 1985).
[xvii] Hartford Democratic Town Comm. v. Conn. Democratic State Cent. Comm., 2003 Conn. Super. LEXIS 480 (Conn. Super. Ct. Feb. 18, 2003).
[xviii] Malone v. Superior Court of San Francisco, 40 Cal. 2d 546 (Cal. 1953).
[xix] State v. Petersilie, 334 N.C. 169 (N.C. 1993).