Parties’ State Regulations

STATE REGULATION OF THE PARTIES Americans’ traditional suspicion of political parties has led most states, especially during the Progressive Era of the late 1800s and early 19005, to pass large numbers of laws restricting their party organizations. Party commit- tees are regulated “lightly” in only about a third of the states, most of them in the South, Plains states, and upper Midwest.1 At the other extreme, in 15 states—including California, New Jersey, and Ohio—lawmakers have thought it necessary to control even the smallest details of state party activity, such as the types of public buildings in which parties must hold their conventions.

These extensive state rules have not necessarily weakened the parties; some of the strongest party organizations in the nation are also the most tightly regulated. In fact, all these state laws help prop up the Democratic and Republican Parties against competition from minor parties. However, they do give state governments a set of tools for keeping an eye on their parties. They also indicate that state law does not View the parties simply as private groups. As Leon Epstein argued, the parties are seen as public utilities that can be subject to a great deal of state direction.2 And federal campaign finance regulations since the 19703 have built a substantial body of national law that affects party organizations and candidates.

States do not have complete freedom to decide how to regulate the parties. Federal courts have frequently stepped in to protect citizens’ voting rights (see Chapter 8), to keep the states from unreasonably limiting minor-party and independent candidates’ ballot access (see Chapter 2), and to acknowledge the parties’ right to control their internal affairs. In the 1980s, for example, the Supreme Court ruled that the state of Connecticut could not prevent the Republican Party from opening up its primary to independents if it wanted to. Soon after, the Court threw out a California law saying, among other things, that parties could not endorse candidates in primary elections. A 2000 Supreme Court decision overturned a California state initiative setting up a “blanket primary” on the grounds that it violated the party organization’s First Amendment right to decide who votes in its primaries.3 Even so, American party organizations are more heavily regulated than are their counterparts in other democracies.

 

 

_—J—_———_~————\52CHAPTER 3 The State and Local Party Organizations

LEVELS OF PARTY ORGANIZATION The party organizations created by the states follow a common pattern.‘T’heir structure corresponds to the levels of government at which voters elect office- holders. This structure is often pictured as a pyramid based in the grassroots and stretching up to the statewide organization. A pyramid, however, gives the misleading impression that the layer at the top can give orders to the layers below. $0 picture these party organizations, instead, as they fit into a geo- graphic map (Figure 3.1).

Local Party Committees The county is the main unit of local party organization in most states, because so many important local officials are elected at the county level, and usually in partisan elections: sheriffs, prosecutors, county attorneys and clerks, judges, council members, treasurers, assessors, surveyors, coroners, and more. These officials control vital functions ranging from policing the area and prosecuting those accused of crime to assessing and collecting property taxes. Party organizations exist in almost all of the nation’s counties to at least some

State legislative and/or congressional district

committee (in some states)

State central committee FIGURE 3.1 The Party Organizations in a Typical State.

 

 

—_’———————_LLevelsof Party Organization 1 53

degree. These are the parties’ “grassroots,” where a lot of the activity of party volunteers takes place.

In most areas, counties are divided into smaller units called precincts. Each precinct (or town, township, or ward, in some areas) in theory has a party leader—a committeeman and/or committeewoman—to conduct the party’s activities in that area. Because there are about 193,000 precincts in the United States, it would be easy to imagine a vibrant party base made up of at least 200,000 committed men and women. However, this exists only in the dreams of party leaders; in reality, up to half of these local committee positions are vacant because nobody volunteers to serve in them.

When these (unpaid) positions do get filled, it generally happens in one of three ways. Most committeemen and women are chosen at local party caucuses (meetings) or in primary elections, but in a few instances, higher party authorities appoint them. In states that use caucuses, parties hold meetings in the precincts and wards that are open to any voters in the area who declare themselves attached to the party. These local party supporters then elect the precinct committee leaders and often elect delegates to county and/or state conventions as well. In states that choose precinct committeemen and women in the primaries, any voter may nominate himself or herself for the job by filing a petition signed by a handful of local voters. If, as often happens, there are no nominees, the committeeman or woman may be elected by an even smaller handful of write-in votes. These local committee positions, in short, are not normally in great demand, especially in the weaker party in an area. Therefore, the local parties are far from being exclusive clubs; their “front doors” are often open to anyone who chooses to walk in.

What do these precinct and county party leaders do? Their three most important jobs are registering new voters, going door-to-door (called “canvassing” or “d2d”) to tell potential supporters about the party’s candidates, and getting voters to the polls (known as “GOTV,” or “get out the vote”). They need to recruit volunteers to help with these labor-intensive tasks and to help staff the party’s headquarters. County party leaders may also try to raise money to support local candidates. And when there are vacancies on the party ticket—offices for which nobody chose to run in the primary election and for which the party has not been able to recruit candidates—then the local party committees may be responsible for appointing a candidate to run. In the less active local parties, the committeemen and women may do little more than show up at an occasional meeting and campaign for a party candidate or two.

The precinct committeemen and women usually come together to make up the next level of local party organization, or they elect the delegates who do. In some states, the next level is the city party committee; in others, it may be the town, county, or state legislative and congressional district committees. Usually, however, there is greater activity at the county level than in any other layer of the local party.

 

 

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