Party Responsibilities
November 24, 2004 9:11 AM   Subscribe

What are the rights and responsibilities of belonging to a political party, specifically in the US? [More Inside]

So, for example, if the Republican moderates suddenly decided that the Republican party was too right-wing for them, what's to stop them from becoming Democrats en masse?

Would they be welcomed by the Democratic party?

Obviously, they'd have some explaining to do to their constituents, but I'd think that if this happened on a wide scale (say, 5 or more), people might start to get the message anyway.

Is there any legal barrier to their doing so?
posted by Caviar to Law & Government (15 answers total)
None that I'm aware of. You get put on a mailing list. You're liable to get some get-out-the-vote phone calls or polling calls. That's about it I think.
posted by petebest at 9:30 AM on November 24, 2004

So, for example, if the Republican moderates suddenly decided that the Republican party was too right-wing for them, what's to stop them from becoming Democrats en masse?

Nope, party affiliation is totally fluid, but if you're talking about a bunch of elected officials abruptly changing parties in the middle of a term they would probably have difficulty getting reelected in many cases.
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 9:31 AM on November 24, 2004

I have no legal basis for this, but I always thought that the party system is mostly a formality, and that one could "switch" anytime. For that matter, a Republican can vote Democrat at any time, and vice versa, so how much can the party designation really mean? I suppose it just serves as a label to let others know of your general political leanings, but the fact that there are "moderate" Republicans, etc., shows how useful/useless this labelling system really is.
posted by cahlers at 9:32 AM on November 24, 2004

There's no legal barrier to stop office holders from changing political parties mid-term. See Jim Jeffords, a Senator who left the republican party to become an independent.

The political fallout, however, would be huge. The office holder in question would suddenly loose all their ties to their old political party (relationships built up over the years), and would have no guarantee that similar relationships could be built on the other side.

Additionally, chances are the candidate would loose the next election. While party line voting isn't as prevalent as it used to be, there are still large swaths of the population that will simply vote for whatever candidate is part of their party. In your example, a candidate would be running as a Democrat in a district that (likely) tilted Republican. Unless they were extremely popular this would be political suicide.
posted by alana at 9:34 AM on November 24, 2004

I believe one of the rights of party members is to vote in that party's primaries.
posted by tetsuo at 9:44 AM on November 24, 2004

To clarify and further the point- party membership is like a club. There isn't (I think) any legally-binding consequence. If I'm a Democract, and I lose the primary election, I can still run as an Independent, though I won't have access to party funding (or even backing). As an elected official, I could switch at any time- any consequences are of a "social" nature.

When you register to vote, you declare party affiliation as a formality. The gov't doesn't care- it just makes it easier to confirm what primary your vote counts in.

Most (if not all) political parties in the U.S. do not allow you to simultaneously be a member of another political party.
posted by mkultra at 9:48 AM on November 24, 2004

In the Democratic party in Pennsylvania, one's level of responsibility within a political party relies mostly on one's participation, which can run the gamut from voting to donating at one end, and chairing the party at the other.

Most active party members are active on the local level as committeepersons, working with the County and running for local level positions on schoolboard, etc. Responsibilities of committeepeople include voter mobilization/registration within their given area (usually split up into wards) and fundraising. The majority of these committeepeople neglect their duties and are no help during the election season, especially for candidates they dislike or don't think will win.

The most active within the county work with the state committee (these are the people that go to conventions,) and the State committee works with the National Committee (the real bigwigs.) Though the primary system has eliminated the smoke-filled rooms of days gone by, people who work within the party have a much easier time getting nominated than those who don't.
posted by The White Hat at 9:51 AM on November 24, 2004

In the US Congress, Senators and Reps are assigned committee seats and chairs by their party honchos. So currently all committees are chaired by Republicans.
posted by TimeFactor at 10:33 AM on November 24, 2004

Response by poster: To clarify, my question was in reference to office-holders who were elected on a party ticket, not voters.
posted by Caviar at 11:05 AM on November 24, 2004

It's not that unusual for a member of Congress to switch parties - but certainly it helps if the office-holder is popular, and/or in a swing district. My sense is that most of such changes in the past forty years have been in southern states, with Democrats migrating to the Republican party, but I have nothing to prove that.

In 2001, five party switchers were in the United States Senate, in addition to Senator Jeffords: [source]
• Sen. Strom Thurmond (South Carolina) -- Democrat to Republican, (9/16/64). [Has since died.]
• Sen. Phil Gramm (Texas) -- Democrat to Republican (1/5/83), switched while a member of the House
• Sen. Richard Shelby (Alabama) -- Democrat to Republican (11/9/94)
• Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (Colorado) -- Democrat to Republican (3/3/95). [Did not run for reelection, 2004.]
• Sen. Bob Smith (New Hampshire) – Republican to Independent (7/13/99); Independent
to Republican (11/1/1999)

And yes, there have been speculations that several (Northeastern) Republican Senators might be tempted to switch to the Democratic party. With 55 Republicans (starting January 2005), it would take six to switch simultaneously for the Senate to return to Democratic control. The likelihood of that seems very remote. Might one or two change? If nearing retirement, perhaps. For anyone else, changing from majority to minority in the Senate, and aligning oneself against an incumbent president, is rather daunting.
posted by WestCoaster at 11:29 AM on November 24, 2004

I believe one of the rights of party members is to vote in that party's primaries.

Not in all states.
posted by kindall at 11:36 AM on November 24, 2004

Response by poster: If enough of them change from Republican to Democratic as a bloc, they won't be switching from majority to minority, as the Democratic side would then be the new majority.

What might the Democratic party offer to six potential swing senators to have them return control of the Senate to the Democrats?
posted by Caviar at 12:14 PM on November 24, 2004

See Jim Jeffords, a Senator who left the republican party to become an independent.

And, as a follow-up note of "what happened to him?" He had to return some, but not all, of the money people gave him to run for re-election this last time. Some Republicans will never trust him again, but most people forgave him even if they didn't quite understand him. In Vermont, our Republicans are more often not the social conservatives that you think of when you hear the phrase "red state", they're more like fiscal conservatives. He's nearing retirement so he may make one more election bid but probably only one. He will easily get re-elected unless something drastically changes in the state before then. One question might be: how could you convince Jeffords to go from Independent to Democratic? His wife is a Democrat, a lot of people in-state were not surprised by his switch.
posted by jessamyn at 3:54 PM on November 24, 2004

In NYS, ticking the political party box just means you can vote in the primary. No other responsibilities or benefits. On the other hand, if you're an elected official with the party, you'll have to deal with the party's own politics in order to use their machine: "the meeting before the meeting" to make sure they won't boot you or let you fall.

As far as the Dems recruiting moderate Republicans, it seems like it would work better if the moderates stayed Republican but voted their consciences. It would be better to stir up the party from within than to let all the moderates leave, creating an all-extremist, all-neocon, all-singing, all-dancing Republican party.

Barring that, it could be time to bring back the Bull Moose Party.
posted by Sticherbeast at 4:08 PM on November 24, 2004

I can imagine Collins, Chafee, and perhaps Snowe becoming Independents, but never Republicans. My guess is that it would have absolutely no negative impact on their electability within their states, though obviously the disadvantages in terms of committee assignments, etc., are obvious.

If Jeffords had switched to the Democrats, I think it would have been much much more controversial in Vermont.

One of the early adopters of the Republican-turned-Independent position was Connecticut governor Lowell Weicker, one of my favorite politicians of all time. As a lifelong independent, I have a big old crush on Gov. Weicker.
posted by Sidhedevil at 6:02 PM on November 24, 2004

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