Wednesday, May 25, 2005

The Libertarian Party Loses its First Amendment Challenge to Oklahoma's Voting Laws

In Clingman v. Beaver, the Supreme Court ruled Monday that states may bar a political party from opening its primary election to members of another party, upholding restrictions in nearly half the states.

In a 6-3 decision, justices ruled against the Libertarian Party in its First Amendment challenge to Oklahoma's system. The party wanted to open its primaries, over the state's objections, to voters registered as Democrats or Republicans in hopes of attracting more members.

Oklahoma is one of 24 states that have closed or semi-closed primaries. Closed primaries require people to register and vote with one political party. In semi-closed systems, like the Oklahoma one, political parties generally may only allow their own members and independents to cast ballots.

Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for the majority, said Oklahoma and other states have broad powers to structure primaries as they see fit. The Libertarian Party's rights of free association thus were not violated, he said.

"Oklahoma remains free to allow the Libertarian Party to invite registered voters of other parties to vote in its primary. But the Constitution leaves that choice to the democratic process, not the courts," Thomas wrote.

In a dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens expressed concern that Oklahoma does not give voters a chance to participate in third-party elections. Limiting primary participation could serve to preserve the power of the major parties from competition, he wrote in an opinion joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and David H. Souter.

"The court's decision today diminishes the value of two important rights protected by the First Amendment: the individual citizen's right to vote for the candidate of her choice and a political party's right to define its own mission," Stevens wrote.

The states with closed or semi-closed primaries are Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, West Virginia and Wyoming, according to court filings.


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