The Supreme Court: Switching Parties

Switching Parties

Last minute party switching to impact a primary election is another problem that has been dealt with in the courts. In a 1973 precedent-setting case, Rosario v. Rockefeller, the Supreme Court ruled that states could set lengthy time restrictions related to party affiliation to prevent last minute party switching.

New York State's requirement for a voter to register the party of his or her choice 30 days before a general election in order to vote in the next primary election was challenged as unconstitutional because it deprived voters of the right under the First and Fourteenth Amendments to associate with the party of their choice. The law creates the longest lead time in the country for declaring a party because it means prospective voters must register their party about eight months before a presidential primary and 11 months before a nonpresidential one.

The state claimed the primary purpose of this statute is to prevent last minute party switching and deter “raiding” by opposing party members. In a split 5 to 4 decision, the United States Supreme Court held that the law was constitutional. Justice Stewart wrote the opinion for the Court, which was signed by Burger, White, Blackmun, and Rehnquist. Justice Powell wrote the dissent, which was signed by Douglas, Brennan, and Marshall.

In the majority opinion, Stewart wrote:

  • “It is true that the period between the enrollment deadline and the next primary election is lengthy. But that period is not an arbitrary time limit unconnected to any important state goal. The purpose of New York's delayed-enrollment scheme, we are told, is to inhibit party 'raiding,' whereby voters in sympathy with one party designate themselves as voters of another party so as to influence or determine the results of the other party's primary. This purpose is accomplished, the Court of Appeals found, not only by requiring party enrollment several months in advance of the primary, on the theory that 'long-range planning in politics is quite difficult,' but also by requiring enrollment prior to a general election … ”
  • “[T]he notion of raiding, its potential disruptive impact, and its advantages to one side are not likely to be as apparent to the majority of enrolled voters, nor to receive as close attention from the professional politician just prior to a November general election, when concerns are elsewhere, as would be true during the 'primary season,' which, for the country as a whole, runs from early February until the end of June. Few persons have the effrontery or the foresight to enroll as, say, “Republicans” so that they can vote in a primary some seven months hence, when they full well intend to vote “Democratic” in only a few weeks. And it would be the rare politician who could successfully urge his constituents to vote for him or his party in the upcoming general election while, at the same time, urging a cross-over enrollment for the purpose of upsetting the opposite party's primary. Yet the operation of section 186 requires such deliberate inconsistencies if large-scale raiding were to be effective in New York. Because of the statute, it is all but impossible for any group to engage in raiding.”

The Supreme Court found that “New York did not prohibit the petitioners from voting in the 1972 primary election or from associating with the political party of their choice. It merely imposed a legitimate time limitation on their enrollment, which they chose to disregard.”

In his dissent Justice Powell wrote:

  • “The importance or significance of any such interest cannot be determined in a vacuum, but, rather, in the context of the means advanced by the State to protect it and the constitutionally sensitive activity it operates to impede. The state interest here is hardly substantial enough to sustain the presumption, upon which the statute appears to be based, that most persons who change or declare party affiliation nearer than 8 to 11 months to a party primary do so with intent to raid that primary. Any such presumption assumes a willingness to manipulate the system which is not likely to be widespread.
  • “Political parties in this country traditionally have been characterized by a fluidity and overlap of philosophy and membership. And citizens generally declare or alter party affiliation for reasons quite unconnected with any premeditated intention to disrupt or frustrate the plans of a party with which they are not in sympathy. Citizens customarily choose a party and vote in its primary simply because it presents candidates and issues more responsive to their immediate concerns and aspirations. Such candidates or issues often are not apparent eight to 11 months before a primary. That a citizen should be absolutely precluded so far in advance from voting in a party primary in response to a sympathetic candidate, a new or meaningful issue, or changing party philosophies in his State, runs contrary to the fundamental rights of personal choice and expression which voting in this country was designed to serve.
  • “Whatever state interest exists for preventing cross-overs from one party to another is appreciably lessened where, as in the case of petitioners, there has been no previous affiliation with any political party. The danger of voters in sympathy with one party “raiding” another party is insubstantial where the voter has made no prior party commitment at all. Certainly, the danger falls short of the overriding state interest needed to justify denying petitioners, so far in advance, the right to declare an initial party affiliation and vote in the party primary of their choice.”

As you can see, even though elections are state-controlled activities, the United States Supreme Court steps in when Constitutional questions arise. In the next section, we'll explore the role of the Supreme Court in taxation issues.

Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to The Supreme Court © 2004 by Lita Epstein, J.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.