Local View: Political parties not private organizations

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On Jan. 4, the Columbian editorialized (“Not on Public’s Dime”) that the major political parties are private organizations, so let them pay for the election of precinct committee officers.

The Columbian is dead wrong. The two major political parties — the Democratic Party and the Republican Party — are NOT private organizations. They are semi-public institutions that have been authorized by state law to carry out certain public duties and responsibilities.

The people of Washington as early as 1907 decided that the political parties had to be regulated. In particular, the nominating of candidates for public office could not be left in the hands of the political parties through the caucus–convention system, but would be conducted by the state in a primary election. In addition, party organization structure was set by law. Party finance, including the giving of money to the political parties and candidates for public office, was strictly regulated; an elaborate system of reporting by the parties and those who give money to the parties and candidates was enacted.

Moreover, the two major parties have public duties that no private organization has. In the past, they provided election inspectors, judges and clerks to run the polls on election day. With mail-in ballots now, this function has ceased but could be revived if polling stations were to be restored. The parties provide observers to ensure that elections are conducted fairly. They provide volunteer election observers to watch the receipt and counting of ballots and the conduct of the logic and accuracy tests conducted by the county auditor.

The two major parties have no members in the sense that private organizations do. A voter affiliates with either party on his or her own motion. No one admits a voter to membership nor does either party exclude anyone for any reason. Affiliation is a private decision.

The major parties have four characteristics that distinguish them from private organizations.

First, political parties are united by the desire to win elections. Neither party has ever issued a statement of what a person must believe to be a good Republican or a good Democrat.

Second, they are decentralized. Power rests with the county organizations.

Third, political parties are multigroup organizations. People from many different walks of life and different organizations affiliate with either party.

Fourth, they are semi-public as shown above.

It is quite consistent, then, for the precinct committee officers of both major parties to be elected at an election conducted by the state. The precinct committee officers are the primary building blocks of the party organizational structure. Collectively, they form legislative district committees and county committees from whence they form the state central committees. Since the parties are regulated its makes sense to have the precinct committee officers elected at a public election.

The Legislature should face up to the problem created by U.S. District Judge John Coughenour’s ruling a year ago that the parties are private by providing by law that the precinct committee officers be elected at the general election. If anyone takes the new law to court, the state should defend the decision by pointing out that Judge Coughenour erred in assuming that the parties are private. We should ask for reversal of his decision and defend public election of precinct committee officers.

Daniel M. Ogden Jr. of Vancouver was chairman of the Clark County Democratic Central Committee from 1996 to 2000 and chairman of the 49th Legislative District Committee from 1992 to 1996. He served on the political science faculty of Washington State University in Pullman from 1949 to 1961. His wife is former state Rep. Val Ogden.