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The Blanket Primary in California

The Blanket Primary was adopted in Washington in 1935. For many years it was the only state with this unique nominating system for partisan offices. More recently, the blanket primary has been used in Alaska and, in a modified form, in Louisiana. In March 1996, the voters in California adopted an initiative – Proposition 198 – that replaced the closed primary nominating system in that state with a blanket primary.

Conflict with Political Party Rules. In California, voters register by political party and each party has adopted rules that provide that ONLY the voters registered in that party may participate in the selection of the nominees of the party at the state primary. Clearly, the new law and the political party rules were in direct conflict since, under the California blanket primary initiative, a voter of one political party would be allowed to vote for candidates of another party in the primary.

Legal Challenge in California. The California Republican and Democratic parties, together with two minor political parties, challenged the new blanket primary law in Federal District Court (California Democratic Party et al. V. Jones, et al.). The plaintiffs alleged that the blanket primary interfered with and injured the political parties’ rights of association, which are protected under the First Amendment of the U. S. Constitution. A trial was conducted by the District Court to determine whether the parties were actually injured by the blanket primary and whether or not this nominating system burdened the interests of the parties to an extent that affected their constitutional rights.

The District Court found that the impact of the blanket primary on the political parties was incidental and that, accordingly, the statute was not in conflict with the political parties’ constitutional right of association. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the District Court decision. The political parties appealed this ruling to the U. S. Supreme Court.

Ruling by the U. S. Supreme Court. The case was argued before the Supreme Court in early May. On June 26, 2000, The Supreme Court overturned the lower court decision and ruled that the blanket primary law in California violates a political party’s First Amendment right of Association.