THE BLOG
04/15/2016 11:48 am ET Updated Apr 15, 2017

Political Parties are Under No Obligation to Operate Democratically

Supporters of Democratic Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders are flocking to local town hall meetings asking why their U.S. Representative or Senator is a Superdelagate for Hillary Clinton when their district or state supported Sanders. They ask, "Shouldn't they represent the will of the people?" Contrariwise, on the Republican side, supporters of Donald Trump are incensed that his rival Ted Cruz secured 34 of 37 delegates in Colorado. The delegates were selected not by the voters but at the state convention. Trump excoriated the system as "corrupt" and bemoaned: "We're supposed to be a Democracy."

There is an inherent misunderstanding on the part of many voters that political parties are Democratic institutions. While they are regulated, political parties have plenary authority to select their nominees in any way they choose. They are under no obligation to allow the voters to select their nominees. In fact, voters in most states and territories vote in the primary and caucus system not for a specific candidate, but for a slate of delegates pledged to support a candidate. Surprisingly, they do not vote directly for individual candidates.

Ken Rudin, the host of NPR's Ken Rudin's Political Junkie maintains: "People don't know - or they forgot - that party leaders can still have their way if voters fail to make a clear choice. That's why we have superdelagates (on the Democratic side) as well as state party conventions. They are the last chance for the establishment to display the power they once routinely had. In the rare times when the voters and the party don't see eye to eye (i.e., Republicans 2016), the party will do what it can do to have its way."

The term "political party" is not embedded in the U.S. Constitution. In fact, many of the nation's founders opposed their formation. In fact, in his 1796 Farewell address, George Washington warned about the "baneful effects of the spirit of party." Thomas Jefferson declared: "If I could not go to Heaven but with a party, I would not go there at all."

However, the founders realized that the establishment of political parties was inevitable. James Madison begrudgingly concluded: "In every political society, parties are unavoidable." He said they "must always be expected in a government as free as ours."

Madison proved correct. During the early years of the Republic, supporters of a centralized federal government, led by U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, formed the Federalist Party, while the exponents of a decentralized federal government led by U.S. Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, formed the Democratic-Republican Party.

Contrary to conventional belief, the current practice of selecting Presidential nominees is far more Democratic than it has been for most of American history. Originally, members of Congress would caucus to decide their party's nominee. Then political conventions were established wherein delegates to the convention choose the nominee. The delegates are not always representative of the vox populi, but are often hand-selected by the party's high command.

The Presidential primary process was first utilized in 1912, and it was far from Democratic. Only fourteen states held primaries and they proved functionally impotent. Former President Theodore Roosevelt, a progressive Republican, became disillusioned with the more conservative policies of his Republican, handpicked successor, William Howard Taft. He challenged Taft in the primaries, telling news reporters, "My hat's in the ring. The fight is on, and I'm stripped to the buff." Roosevelt mustered 284 delegates in the primaries, compared to just 125 for Taft. However, Taft secured the nomination because of the support of "pledged delegates" (individual Republicans who had a vote at the convention). Roosevelt subsequently formed the Progressive Party and ran as their nominee. Democrat Woodrow Wilson defeated both Taft and Roosevelt.

In 1952, U.S. Senator Estes Kefauver (D-TN) won 12 of the 15 Democratic primaries. He had even defeated Incumbent President Harry S. Truman in the New Hampshire Primary, forcing Truman to announce that he would not seek re-election. Kefauver was a folk hero of sorts for his role as Chairman of a Special Senate Committee on Organized Crime. At the time, television was an inchoate medium; many stores placed the new gadget in their windows so that spectators could watch the hearings.

However, the choice of primary voters had little impact. The convention chose Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson, who had not entered any primaries and who was not even a Presidential candidate. In fact, Stevenson was actively seeking re-election as Governor. A Draft Stevenson movement emerged, and his name was placed in nomination. Stevenson reluctantly accepted the Democratic nomination.

In 1968, Vice President Hubert Humphrey entered only one primary, South Dakota, which he lost. Humphrey supported the Vietnam policy of President Lyndon B. Johnson. Many members of the Democrat establishment supported the war, while rank-and-file Democrats did not. Instead, they supported U.S. Senator Eugene McCarthy (D-MN). Humphrey forces placed "favorite son" candidates as substitutes for Humphrey in some states. They then transferred their delegates to Humphrey. Though Humphrey had not won any primaries himself, the convention chose Humphrey. Reflecting on the way the Democratic Party worked against his nomination, McCarthy asserted that he "set out to prove...that the people of this country could be educated and make a decent judgment...but evidently this is something the politicians were afraid to face up to." Eventually McCarthy reluctantly endorsed Humphrey, telling his supporters: "I'm voting for Humphrey, and I think you should suffer with me." Humphrey lost the General Election to Republican President Richard M. Nixon.

In many respects, the political parties today take the will of the voter under advisement, but party officials are not legally bound to ratify them. Even recently, there are examples of candidates who were out of the party's mainstream who actually won delegates, but who were not seated. In 2000, perennial Democratic Presidential candidate Lyndon Larouche pocketed 22% of the vote in the Arkansas primary. Under state party rules, he was eligible to be awarded seven to ten of the state's 48 delegates to the National Convention.

However, Democratic Party Co-Chairman Joe Andrew had ordered all state party chairs to "disregard any votes that might be cast for Larouche." Andrew alleged LaRouche: "fails to show commitment to the goals and objectives of the Democratic Party as determined by the National Chair."

A lawsuit was filed on behalf of Larouche and his delegate slate asking the judge to order that they be seated at the state and National Convention. However, Judge John Ward denied the request. He ruled that the state had the right to "refuse to . . . seat delegates for Lyndon La Rouche," and ruled that the state could instead award those seats to delegates supporting Vice President Al Gore.

Many voters believe political parties are mandated to award their nomination to the candidate who garners the most votes. Actually, there have been examples where a candidate garners fewer votes, but still musters his party's nomination. In 1972, U.S. Senator Hubert Humphrey (running again for the nomination) actually won 67,921 more popular votes than the party's nominee, U.S. Senator George McGovern (D-SD). However, California had a winner-take-all rule, meaning that despite the fact that McGovern won the Golden State by only about five percentage points, he secured all of the state's 271 delegates.

As Richard Winger, the Editor of Ballot Access News emphasizes, political parties are independent from the government. "All over the world that is true, except in highly authoritarian countries." In fact, the Helsinki Accords, signed by the U.S. and thirty-four other countries in 1975 calls for: "a clear separation between the State and political parties; in particular, political parties will not be merged with the State."

The bottom line is that political parties are under no obligation to act Democratically in selecting their Presidential nominees. Curly Haugland, a North Dakota delegate, accurately summed up the process when he told CNBC: "Political parties choose their nominee, not the general public, contrary to popular belief."