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Clingman v. Beaver

Citation. 544 U.S. 581 (2005)
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Brief Fact Summary.

Libertarian Party of Oklahoma (P) filed against Oklahoma (D) on the ground that the state primary laws were a violation of the First Amendment, since they allowed only party members or Independents to vote in a party primary election.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

State election laws which regulate the class of voters allowed to vote in a party primary election are not in violation of the First Amendment rights of free speech or association.


The state election laws of Oklahoma (D) provided that a party could invite only its members or Independents to vote  in its primary election. The Libertarian Party of Oklahoma (P) and voters registered under other parties sued against the state, on the basis of violation of the First Amendment. This was because the Libertarian Party was barred from inviting voters of other parties to participate in its primary. The district court ruled in favor of Oklahoma, but the decision was reversed by the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals.


Whether election laws of a state which restrict the voters who may be invited to participate in  a party’s primary election to the party’s own voters or Independent candidates are in violation of the First Amendment rights of free speech and association.


(Thomas, J.) No. Election laws of a state which restrict the voters invited to participate in a party primary to the party’s own voters or Independents do not violate the First Amendment. The law in this case imposed only a minor burden, that of being registered with a party before voting in its primary, on the freedom of association that voters enjoy. At the same time it advanced substantial state interests, including that of keeping parties separate and identifiable in their representation of different interests. All electoral laws which place restrictions on the freedom of association  need not be subjected to strict scrutiny.


(Stevens, J.) The right of an individual citizen to cast a vote for the candidate of his choice is restricted by this decision, as is the right of any party to identify clearly its own interests and goals. State governments cannot have any say in deciding the outcome of an election, protecting major parties from competition or limiting the expansion of new ones. In the present case, the state refused a party to exercise its right to ask willing voters to take part in the primary voting. The Tenth Circuit’s decision should be affirmed


The claim by the Libertarian Party brings the freedom of association  into consideration. These rights are not seen as minimal. The semi-closed primary law of Oklahoma does not restrict the Libertarian Party’s association rights except in a small way, and that without any special bias against the party, and the extent of restriction is justifiable given the magnitude of the interests served. However, in the action of inviting a voter to take part in a primary and  in the voter’s willing response, there is a strong element of freedom to associate which should be the first element considered by the court in its decision.


The Supreme Court has, in this decision, without meaning it, given some additional power to the state from the party as regards party politics. Cases involving election laws often find the regulations under strict scrutiny as to whether the law serves a very strong government interest, is narrowly tailored to serve that interest and is the least restrictive way to achieve it. In this instance, however, the Court applied the test of rational scrutiny, that is, whether the state has a legitimate justification  for the restriction. This is because of the fact that the law applied only a mild limitation on the voters’ freedom of association. Once the state was shown to have a reasonable and lawful basis for its law, the regulation was determined to be valid under the constitution.

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