Sanders: Independent or Democrat? Either way he’ll be on Democratic primary ballots

Bernie Sanders

Sen. Bernie Sanders (?-VT)

Whether or not somebody is a member of a party, or affiliated with a party, is not always a straightforward question. In his FEC Form 2 filing for his presidential candidacy, Bernie Sanders listed his “affiliation” as “Democratic Party.” However he continues to hold himself out as an Independent, and also still lists himself in the Congressional directory as an Independent. In deference to his own preference, he is usually identified in the media as an Independent, e.g. Sen. Sanders (I-VT), who is seeking the Democratic nomination for President.

Vermont, like many states, does not have partisan voter registration, so Sanders is free to variously describe himself as being a Democrat or not a Democrat as it suits him. In his Congressional career, Sanders has always caucused with the Democrats, while appearing on the ballot in Vermont as an Independent, often but not always without a Democratic opponent.

That ambiguity has fueled speculation that Sanders might be barred from Democratic primary ballots, or that Independents are generally not allowed to run in partisan presidential primaries, despite Sanders being accepted and recognized by the Democratic National Committee as a candidate for their nomination.

Richard Winger at Ballot Access News sets the record straight:

New York:

Several New York politics blogs and publications have recently said that Bernie Sanders is in danger of being kept off the New York presidential primary ballot because he is not a Democrat and the Democratic Party has the power to keep non-members off its prseidential primary ballot. Here is the article in Power Line; here is the article in Gothamist. Here is the CapitalNew York story.

The articles are incorrect. The Wilson-Pakula law does not pertain to presidential primaries. The Wilson-Pakula law, sec. 6-120, does keep non-members off the primary ballots of parties (unless party committees approve letting them on), but it only relates to offices for which nominations are made. No state’s presidential primary nominates a major party’s presidential candidate. Only the party’s national conventions do that. The candidates in New York Democratic presidential primaries are individuals running for Delegate to the national convention.

On January 5, 1996, Donald L. Fowler, national chair of the Democratic Party, sent a letter to each state Democratic Party, declaring that Lyndon LaRouche “is not a bona fide Democrat” and therefore if any LaRouche delegates were elected in any Democratic presidential primaries, they would not be seated. LaRouche supporters did win a few delegate slots, but the party refused to seat them and the U.S. Court of Appeals, D.C. circuit, upheld the party’s actions.

Nevertheless, LaRouche appeared on the New York Democratic presidential primary ballot in New York in 2000 and 2004 (there was no New York Democratic presidential primary in 1996). If the Wilson-Pakula applied to presidential primaries, LaRouche would have been barred from the New York Democratic presidential primaries. The only time he ever ran for public office, other than President, was in 1990, when he was an independent candidate for Congress. He lived in Virginia which does not have registration by party.

New Hampshire:

Former Congressman Charles Bass of New Hampshire has this op-ed in the Washington Post, predicting that New Hampshire election authorities will keep Bernie Sanders off the 2016 Democratic presidential primary ballot.

Bass probably doesn’t know that in 1986, the U.S. Supreme Court said in Tashjian v Republican Party of Connecticut that political parties have an right to nominate non-members if they wish. Clearly, if parties are free to nominate non-members, they certainly have a right to see to it that non-members are permitted to run in their primaries. It is true that the comments about political parties nominating non-members was only dicta. However, it is persuasive dicta, and it caused a state court in Colorado and a federal court in New Mexico to invalidate state laws barring candidates from primary ballots if they hadn’t been members of those parties long enough.

It is true the South Dakota Libertarian Party lost a lawsuit on this issue in 2014, but that is because the party’s own bylaws said the party only wishes to nominate members, so the party’s own bylaws sabotaged the party’s lawsuit.

The Republican Party nominated a Democrat for Vice-President in 1864, and there is reason to believe that when the Republican Party nominated Dwight Eisenhower for President in 1952, he was a registered independent in New York.

One thought on “Sanders: Independent or Democrat? Either way he’ll be on Democratic primary ballots

  1. Gene Berkman

    It is interesting from a poli sci nerd aspect to see a self-proclaimed Independent running in the Democrat primary for President. It seems that the Democrats don’t want the perception that Hilary Clinton will be crowned without opposition, even if they have to outsource the opposition to an Independent (Sanders) a former Republican (Chafee) and a former official in the Reagan administration (Jim Webb).

    Of course Bernie Sanders will not win the nomination, so the points made by PJO will not apply.

    Bernie Sanders running in the Democrat primaries rather than as an Independent (or Green Party candidate) makes sense because he does not need a national campaign. He will get national publicity just by entering primaries in a few states, and his campaign will be over before the Democratic convention. A campaign limited in time & space (no tardis needed)

    So far, Sen, Sanders has not received support from Democrat officeholders, except for one or two Democrats who caucus with the Progressives in the Vermont legislature. He has received support from Progressive Democrats of America, which includes many who have been involved in the Green Party & other third parties, He has also received support from the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy & Socialism – former Communist Party members who backed Ralph Nader, and Democratic Socialists of America.

    The Sanders campaign is a new wrinkle in insurgent campaigns. Probably a one-off, but possibly a model for the future of insurgent politics.

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