Williams v. Rhodes

393 U.S. 23
Williams v. Rhodes
Argued: October 7, 1968
Decided: October 15, 1968


David J. Young, Columbus, Ohio, and Jerry Gordon, Cleveland Heights, Ohio, for appellants, pro hac vice, by special leave of Court.
Charles S. Lopeman, Columbus, Ohio, for appellees.
Mr. Justice BLACK delivered the opinion of the Court.

Opinion of the Court

The State of Ohio in a series of election laws has made it virtually impossible for a new political party, even though it has hundreds of thousands of members, or an old party, which has a very small number of members, to be placed on the state ballot to choose electors pledged to particular candidates for the Presidency and Vice Presidency of the United States.

Ohio Revised Code, § 3517.01, requires a new party to obtain petitions signed by qualified electors totaling 15% of the number of ballots cast in the last preceding gubernatorial election. The detailed provisions of other Ohio election laws result in the imposition of substantial additional burdens, which were accurately summarized in Judge Kinneary’s dissenting opinion in the court below and were substantially agreed on by the other members of that court. [1] Together these various restrictive provisions make it virtually impossible for any party to qualify on the ballot except the Republican and Democratic Parties. These two Parties face substantially smaller burdens because they are allowed to retain their positions on the ballot simply by obtaining 10% of the votes in the last gubernatorial election and need not obtain any signature petitions. Moreover, Ohio laws make no provision for ballot position for independent candidates as distinguished from political parties. The State of Ohio claims the power to keep minority parties and independent candidates off the ballot under Art. II, § 1, of the Constitution, which provides that:

‘Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress * * *.’

The Ohio American Independent Party, an appellant in No. 543, and the Socialist Labor Party, an appellant in No. 544, both brought suit to challenge the validity of these Ohio laws as applied to them, on the ground that they deny these Parties and the voters who might wish to vote for them the equal protection of the laws, guaranteed against state abridgment by the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The three-judge District Court designated to try the case ruled these restrictive Ohio election laws unconstitutional but refused to grant the Parties the full relief they had sought, 290 F.Supp. 983 (D.C.S.D.Ohio 1968), and both Parties have appealed to this Court. The cases arose in this way:

The Ohio American Independent Party was formed in January 1968 by Ohio partisans of former Governor George C. Wallace of Alabama. During the following six months a campaign was conducted for obtaining signatures on petitions to give the Party a place on the ballot and over 450,000 signatures were eventually obtained, more than the 433,100 required. The State contends and the Independent Party agrees that due to the interaction of several provisions of the Ohio laws, such petitions were required to be filed by February 7, 1968, and so the Secretary of the State of Ohio informed the Party that it would not be given a place on the ballot. Neither in the pleadings, the affidavits before the District Court, the arguments there, nor in our Court has the State denied that the petitions were signed by enough qualified electors of Ohio to meet the 15% requirement under Ohio law. Having demonstrated its numerical strength, the Independent Party argued that this and the other burdens, including the early deadline for filing petitions and the requirement of a primary election conforming to detailed and rigorous standards, denied the Party and certain Ohio voters equal protection of the laws. The three-judge District Court unanimously agreed with this contention and ruled that the State must be required to provide a space for write-in votes. A majority of the District Court refused to hold, however, that the Party’s name must be printed on the ballot, on the ground that Wallace and his adherents had been guilty of ‘laches’ by filing their suit too late to allow the Ohio Legislature an opportunity to remedy, in time for the presidential balloting, the defects which the court held the law possessed. The appellants in No. 543 then moved before Mr. Justice Stewart, Circuit Justice for the Sixth Circuit, for an injunction which would order the Party’s candidates to be put on the ballot pending appeal. After consulting with the other members of the Court who were available, and after the State represented that the grant of interlocutory relief would be in the interests of the efficient operation of the electoral machinery if this Court considered the chances of successful challenge to the Ohio statutes good, Mr. Justice Stewart granted the injunction, 89 S.Ct. 1, 21 L.Ed.2d 69.

The Socialist Labor Party, an appellant in No. 544, has all the formal attributes of a regular party. It has conventions and a State Executive Committee as required by the Ohio law, and it was permitted to have a place on the ballot until 1948. Since then, however, it has not filed petitions with the total signatures required under new Ohio laws for ballot position, and indeed it conceded it could not do so this year. The same three-judge panel heard the Party’s suit and reached a similar result-write-in space was ordered but ballot position was denied the Socialist Labor Party. In this case the District Court assigned both the Party’s small membership of 108 and its delay in bringing suit as reasons for refusing to order more complete relief for the 1968 election. A motion to stay the District Court’s judgment was presented to Mr. Justice Stewart several days after he had ordered similar relief in the Independent Party case. The motion was denied principally because of the Socialist Party’s failure to move quickly to obtain relief, with the consequent confusion that would be caused by requiring Ohio once again to begin completely reprinting its election ballots, but the case was set by this Court for oral argument, along with the Independent Party case.

Ohio’s claim that the political-question doctrine precludes judicial consideration of these cases requires very little discussion. That claim has been rejected in cases of this kind numerous times. It was rejected by the Court unanimously in 1892 in the case of McPherson v. Blacker, 146 U.S. 1, 23-24, 13 S.Ct. 3, 6, 36 L.Ed. 869 and more recently it has been squarely rejected in Baker v. Carr, 369 U.S. 186, 208-237, 82 S.Ct. 691, 705-721, 7 L.Ed.2d 663 (1962), and in Wesberry v. Sanders, 376 U.S. 1, 5-7, 84 S.Ct. 526, 528-530, 11 L.Ed.2d 481 (1964). Other cases to the same effect need not now be cited. These cases do raise a justiciable controversy under the Constitution and cannot be relegated to the political arena.

The State also contends that it has absolute power to put any burdens it pleases on the selection of electors because of the First Section of the Second Article of the Constitution, providing that ‘Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors * * *’ to choose a President and Vice President. There, of course, can be no question but that this section does grant extensive power to the States to pass laws regulating the selection of electors. But the Constitution is filled with provisions that grant Congress or the States specific power to legislate in certain areas; these granted powers are always subject to the limitation that they may not be exercised in a way that violates other specific provisions of the Constitution. For example, Congress is granted broad power to ‘lay and collect Taxes,’ [2] but the taxing power, broad as it is, may not be invoked in such a way as to violate the privilege against self-incrimination. [3] Nor can it be thought that the power to select electors could be exercised in such a way as to violate express constitutional commands that specifically bar States from passing certain kinds of laws. Clearly, the Fifteenth and Nineteenth Amendments were intended to bar the Federal Government and the States from denying the right to vote on grounds of race and sex in presidential elections. And the Twenty-fourth Amendment clearly and literally bars any State from imposing a poll tax on the right to vote ‘for electors for President or Vice President.’ Obviously we must reject the notion that Art. II, § 1, gives the States power to impose burdens on the right to vote, where such burdens are expressly prohibited in other constitutional provisions. We therefore hold that no State can pass a law regulating elections that violates the Fourteenth Amendment’s command that ‘No State shall * * * deny to any person * * * the equal protection of the laws.’

We turn then to the question whether the court below properly held that the Ohio laws before us result in a denial of equal protection of the laws. It is true that this Court has firmly established the principle that the Equal Protection Clause does not make every minor difference in the application of laws to different groups a violation of our Constitution. But we have also held many times that ‘invidious’ distinctions cannot be enacted without a violation of the Equal Protection Clause. [4] In determining whether or not a state law violates the Equal Protection Clause, we must consider the facts and circumstances behind the law, the interests which the State claims to be protecting, and the interests of those who are disadvantaged by the classification. [5] In the present situation the state laws place burdens on two different, although overlapping, kinds of rights the right of individuals to associate for the advancement of political beliefs, and the right of qualified voters, regardless of their political persuasion, to cast their votes effectively. Both of these rights, of course, rank among our most precious freedoms. We have repeatedly held that freedom of association is protected by the First Amendment. [6] And of course this freedom protected against federal encroachment by the First Amendment is entitled under the Fourteenth Amendment to the same protection from infringement by the States. [7] Similarly we have said with reference to the right to vote: ‘No right is more precious in a free country than that of having a voice in the election of those who make the laws under which, as good citizens, we must live. Other rights, even the most basic, are illusory if the right to vote is undermined.’ [8]

No extended discussion is required to establish that the Ohio laws before us give the two old, established parties a decided advantage over any new parties struggling for existence and thus place substantially unequal burdens on both the right to vote and the right to associate. The right to form a party for the advancement of political goals means little if a party can be kept off the election ballot and thus denied an equal opportunity to win votes. So also, the right to vote is heavily burdened if that vote may be cast only for one of two parties at a time when other parties are clamoring for a place on the ballot. In determining whether the State has power to place such unequal burdens on minority groups where rights of this kind are at stake, the decisions of this Court have consistently held that ‘only a compelling state interest in the regulation of a subject within the State’s constitutional power to regulate can justify limiting First Amendment freedoms.’ NAACP v. Button, 371 U.S. 415, at 438, 83 S.Ct. 328, at 341 (1963).

The State has here failed to show any ‘compelling interest’ which justifies imposing such heavy burdens on the right to vote and to associate.

The State asserts that the following interests are served by the restrictions it imposes. It claims that the State may validly promote a two-party system in order to encourage compromise and political stability. The fact is, however, that the Ohio system does not merely favor a ‘two-party system’; it favors two particular parties-the Republicans and the Democrats and in effect tends to give them a complete monopoly. There is, of course, no reason why two parties should retain a permanent monopoly on the right to have people vote for or against them. Competition in ideas and governmental policies is at the core of our electoral process and of the First Amendment freedoms. New parties struggling for their place must have the time and opportunity to organize in order to meet reasonable requirements for ballot position, just as the old parties have had in the past.

Ohio makes a variety of other arguments to support its very restrictive election laws. It points out, for example, that if three or more parties are on the ballot, it is possible that no one party would obtain 50% of the vote, and the runner-up might have been preferred to the plurality winner by a majority of the voters. Concededly, the State does have an interest in attempting to see that the election winner be the choice of a majority of its voters. But to grant the State power to keep all political parties off the ballot until they have enough members to win would stifle the growth of all new parties working to increase their strength from year to year. Considering these Ohio laws in their totality, this interest cannot justify the very severe restrictions on voting and associational rights which Ohio has imposed.

The State also argues that its requirement of a party structure and an organized primary insures that those who disagree with the major parties and their policies ‘will be given a choice of leadership as well as issues’ since any leader who attempts to capitalize on the disaffection of such a group is forced to submit to a primary in which other, possibly more attractive, leaders can raise the same issues and compete for the allegiance of the disaffected group. But while this goal may be desirable, Ohio’s system cannot achieve it. Since the principal policies of the major parties change to some extent from year to year, and since the identity of the likely major party nominees may not be known until shortly before the election, this disaffected ‘group’ will rarely if ever be a cohesive or identifiable group until a few months before the election. Thus, Ohio’s burdensome procedures, requiring extensive organization and other election activities by a very early date, operate to prevent such a group from ever getting on the ballot and the Ohio system thus denies the ‘disaffected’ not only a choice of leadership but a choice on the issues as well.

Finally Ohio claims that its highly restrictive provisions are justified because without them a large number of parties might qualify for the ballot, and the voters would then be confronted with a choice so confusing that the popular will could be frustrated. But the experience of many States, including that of Ohio prior to 1948, demonstrates that no more than a handful of parties attempts to qualify for ballot positions even when a very low number of signatures, such as 1% of the electorate, is required. [9] It is true that the existence of multitudinous fragmentary groups might justify some regulatory control but in Ohio at the present time this danger seems to us no more than ‘theoretically imaginable.’ [10] No such remote danger can justify the immediate and crippling impact on the basic constitutional rights involved in this case.

Of course, the number of voters in favor of a party, along with other circumstances, is relevant in considering whether state laws violate the Equal Protection Clause. And, as we have said, the State is left with broad powers to regulate voting, which may include laws relating to the qualification and functions of electors. But here the totality of the Ohio restrictive laws taken as a whole imposes a burden on voting and associational rights which we hold is an invidious discrimination, in violation of the Equal Protection Clause.

This leaves only the propriety of the judgments of the District Court. That court held that the Socialist Labor Party could get relief to the extent of having the right, despite Ohio laws, to get the advantage of write-in ballots. It restricted the Independent Party to the same relief. The Independent Party went before the District Court, made its challenge, and prayed for broader relief, including a judgment declaring the Ohio laws invalid. It also asked that its name be put on the ballot along with the Democratic and Republican Parties. The Socialist Labor Party also went to the District Court and asked for the same relief. On this record, however, the parties stand in different positions before us. Immediately after the District Court entered its judgment, the new Independent Party brought its case to this Court where Mr. Justice Stewart conducted a hearing. At that hearing Ohio represented to Mr. Justice Stewart that the Independent Party’s name could be placed on the ballot without disrupting the state election, but if there was a long delay, the situation would be different. It was not until several days after that hearing was concluded and after Mr. Justice Stewart had issued his order staying the judgment against the Independent Party that the Socialist Labor Party asked for similar relief. The State objected on the ground that at that time it was impossible to grant the relief to the Socialist Labor Party without disrupting the process of its elections; accordingly, Mr. Justice Stewart denied it relief, and the State now repeats its statement that relief cannot be granted without serious disruption of election process. Certainly at this late date it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, for Ohio to provide still another set of ballots. Moreover, the confusion that would attend such a last-minute change poses a risk of interference with the rights of other Ohio citizens, for example, absentee voters. Under the circumstances we require Ohio to permit the Independent Party to remain on the ballot, along with its candidates for President and Vice President, subject, of course, to compliance with valid regulatory laws of Ohio, including the law relating to the qualification and functions of electors. We do not require Ohio to place the Socialist Party on the ballot for this election. The District Court’s judgment is affirmed with reference to No. 544, the Socialist Labor Party case, but is modified in No. 543, the Independent Party case, with reference to granting that Party the right to have its name printed on the ballot. It is so ordered.

Judgment affirmed in No. 544 and modified in No. 543.


^1  Judge Kinneary describes, in his dissenting opinion below, the legal obstacles placed before a would-be third party even after the 15% signature requirement has been fulfilled:

‘First, at the primary election, the new party, or any political party, is required to elect a state central committee consisting of two members from each congressional district and county central committees for each county in Ohio. (Ohio Rev.Code §§ 3517.02-3517.04.) Second, at the primary election the new party must elect delegates and alternates to a national convention. (Ohio Rev.Code § 3505.10.) Since Section 3513.19.1, Ohio Rev.Code, prohibits a candidate from seeking the office of delegate to the national convention or committeeman if he voted as a member of a different party at a primary election in the preceding four year period, the new party would be required to have over twelve hundred members who had not previously voted in another party’s primary, and who would be willing to serve as committeemen and delegates. Third, the candidates for nomination in the primary would have to file petitions signed by qualified electors. (Ohio Rev.Code § 3513.05.) The term ‘qualified electors’ is not adequately defined in the Ohio Revised Code (§ 3501.01(H)), but a related section (§ 3513.19), provides that a qualified elector at a primary election of a political party is one who, (1) voted for a majority of that party’s candidates at the last election, or, (2) has never voted in any election before. Since neither of the political party plaintiffs had any candidates at the last preceding regular state election, they would, of necessity, have to seek out members who had never voted before to sign the nominating petitions, and it would be only these persons who could vote in the primary election of the new party.’

^2  Art. I, § 8, cl. 1.

^3  Marchetti v. United States, 390 U.S. 39, 88 S.Ct. 697, 19 L.Ed.2d 889 (1968); Grosso v. United States, 390 U.S. 62, 88 S.Ct. 716, 19 L.Ed.2d 906 (1968).

^4  Skinner v. State of Oklahoma ex rel. Williamson, 316 U.S. 535, 539-541, 62 S.Ct. 1110, 1112-1113, 86 L.Ed. 1655 (1942); Cox v. State of Louisiana, 379 U.S. 536, 557, 85 S.Ct. 453, 465, 13 L.Ed.2d 471 (1965); Yick Wo v. Hopkins, 118 U.S. 356, 6 S.Ct. 1064, 30 L.Ed. 220 (1886); Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483, 74 S.Ct. 686, 98 L.Ed. 873 (1954); Loving v. Com. of Virginia, 388 U.S. 1, 87 S.Ct. 1817, 18 L.Ed.2d 1010 (1967).

^5  See, e.g., Carrington v. Rash, 380 U.S. 89, 85 S.Ct. 775, 13 L.Ed.2d 675 (1965); Skinner v. State of Oklahoma ex rel. Williamson, supra.

^6  United Mine Workers of America, Dist. 12 v. Illinois State Bar Assn., 389 U.S. 217, 88 S.Ct. 353, 19 L.Ed.2d 426 (1967); NAACP v. Button, 371 U.S. 415, 83 S.Ct. 328, 9 L.Ed.2d 405 (1963); NAACP v. State of Alabama ex rel. Patterson, 357 U.S. 449, 78 S.Ct. 1163, 2 L.Ed.2d 1488 (1958).

^7  See New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, 276-277, 84 S.Ct. 710, 723-724, 11 L.Ed.2d 686 (1964), and cases there cited.

^8  Wesberry v. Sanders, supra, 376 U.S. at 17, 84 S.Ct., at 535. See also Carrington v. Rash, supra.

^9  Forty-two States require third parties to obtain the signatures of only 1% or less of the electorate in order to appear on the ballot. It appears that no significant problem has arisen in these States which have relatively lenient requirements for obtaining ballot position.

^10  Cf. United Mine Workers of America, Dist. 12 v. Illinois State Bar Assn., supra, 389 U.S., at 224, 88 S.Ct., at 357.

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