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Legally, what is a political party in the US? I know they are not mentioned in the Constitution. They do not appear to be corporations or charities, or PACs, or any other type of formal organization I am familiar with.
But they do have their own rules and regulations, and they seem to have some sort of official status; for example they are listed on voter registration forms.

What makes a party a party? What legal status do they have under federal law?

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    This is a really good question that I never thought to ask. Hmm... – Bobson Mar 2 '16 at 22:55
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    Some of this question is answered indirectly in the Wikipedia article on Ballot Access. Each state has its own laws defining how a party can get on the ballot. I suppose this makes it likely each state has laws defining a party. – AShelly Mar 3 '16 at 0:36
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+100

Political parties have both a state law identity and a federal law identity, which are distinct.

State Law Foundations For Political Parties

For the most part, political parties are organized at the state law level as either non-profit corporations, or as "unincorporated non-profit organizations" (which are also a popular form of organization for unions).

Unincorporated nonprofit associations are the moral equivalent of an unincorporated general partnership in the for profit sector, as a default when an association is not an entity registered under a state's organizational laws (see also here). There is a model act which has been adopted in its current version, or a previous version, by many states.

The Unincorporated Nonprofit Association law of the District of Columbia is particularly relevant as many national political organizations in both parties, in third parties, and for special interest groups and think tanks are headquartered in the District of Columbia and governed by this law by default. In provides that:

§ 29–1104. Governing law.

(a) Except as otherwise provided in subsection (b) of this section, the law of the District shall govern the operation in the District of all unincorporated nonprofit associations formed or operating in the District.

(b) Unless the governing principles specify a different jurisdiction, the law of the jurisdiction in which an unincorporated nonprofit association has its main place of activities shall govern the internal affairs of the association.

Either form of non-profit can be organized under one of several pertinent non-profit entity forms under the Internal Revenue Code (not under 26 USC § 501(c)(3), however, and often under 26 IRC § 529).

An overview of the organizational features of incorporated and unincorporated nonprofits prepared by the American Bar Association can be found here.

In addition to these two forms of organization, individual candidate political campaigns are sometimes organized as trusts, or as limited liability companies.

Federal Political Party Law

Federal election laws largely discuss political parties and political campaigns in relation to campaign finance rules and in spelling out some of the practicalities of how the electoral college operates.

They have this limited scope because elections for federal elective office are primarily governed (as set forth in the U.S. Constitution) by state law, rather than by federal law (which may establish certain rules that apply in federal elections, even though federal elections are administered by the states).

Many political organizations that fund election campaigns are required to register with the Federal Election Commission, which does not distinguish between these organizations based upon their state law form of organization.

State Political Party Organizations Have Many Features Dictated By State Election Laws, With Residual Rules For Matters Not Addressed Governed By State Laws Governing Incorporated And Unincorporated Nonprofits

State parties are organized under their respective state laws (not in a uniform manner). Significant elements of political party organization are mandated by state and federal election laws making them quasi-governmental entities with close parallels to governmental "special districts".

State election laws heavily regulate the structure of, and mandate procedures that political parties must follow, primarily to be recognized for purposes of ballot access and to integrate them into government funded intra-party primary elections. Typically, these laws have one set of rules and mandates for the two major political parties and one or two other sets of rules and mandates for minor political parties (sometimes as a single category and sometimes further broken up into medium sized and very small political parties).

These state law mandates are superimposed upon the non-contradictory aspects of general corporate law applicable to non-profit corporations or to unincorporated associations, as the case may be.

The National Political Parties Are Federations Of D.C. Unincorporated Nonprofit Associations And State Political Parties

State political party organizations and national party organs (such as the DNC and DLLC and National Association of Democratic Governors) are constituent entities of the national party which is kind of a federation of state parties and national organs. Each of these national organs and each state party has a freestanding financial and organizational existence.

The organizational documents of the national Democratic Party (which has well defined relationships with many constituent organizations), does not expressly identify a jurisdiction in which it is organized and does not appear to be incorporated as a non-profit corporation.

By default, most national political parties, and their national constituent organs, should be subject to the laws of the District of Columbia where the major national parties and many (all?) of its constituent national organs maintain their headquarters. They all appear to be unincorporated nonprofit associations.

The GOP's structure is similar.

Legislative Parties Are Subdivisions of the Legislature In The State and Federal Government Respectively

Legislative rules elected by the respective state legislative houses and the two houses of Congress (i.e. at both the state and federal level) also more or less comprehensively regulate the operations, rights and organization of legislative political parties which is to say, the organized rule of elected legislators who are members of a political party (or are not) to each other and to the legislative body as a whole.

Legislative political parties do not generally have a separate financial existence from the legislative body itself and are really best viewed as "internal divisions" of the legislature in much the same way that Chevy and Pontiac are internal divisions of General Motors Corporation without a distinct identity as a separate corporation or entity from the parent.

  • Are the major national parties registered with and subject to the laws of each state, or are they more like a coalition of the various statr party organizations? – AShelly Aug 11 '18 at 2:07
  • @AShelly I've incorporated responses to this comment into my answer. – ohwilleke Aug 11 '18 at 3:04
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As best as I can tell, political parties are entities unto themselves under the Federal Election Campaign Act. They may also be corporations (the DNC is a not-for-profit corporation in DC, according to the Sanders campaign's lawsuit), but the primary body of law concerning them is the FECA, as administered by the Federal Election Committee (FEC).

According to the glossery in this guide published by the FEC:

Political Committee An entity that meets one of the following conditions:

  • A state party committee or nonparty committee (e.g., a nonconnected committee), club, association or other group of persons that receives contributions or makes expenditures, either of which aggregate over $1,000 during a calendar year.
  • A local unit of a political party that: (1) receives contributions aggregating over $5,000 during a calendar year; (2) makes contributions or expenditures that aggregate over $1,000 during a calendar year; or (3) makes payments aggregating over $5,000 during a calendar year for exempt party activities.
  • An authorized committee of a candidate (see definition of “candidate” and “candidate committee”).
  • Any separate segregated fund upon its establishment. 100.5(a)–(d)

Then, it defines parties:

Political Party An association, committee, or organization that nominates or selects a candidate for election to federal office whose name appears on the election ballot as the candidate of the organization. 100.15

Party Committee A political committee that represents a political party and is part of the official party structure at the national, state or local level. 100.5(e)(4).

I presume, but haven't verified, that the end of each definition references the section of FECA which explicitly defines each term.


For what it's worth, a PAC is also defined here as:

Political Action Committee (PAC) Popular term for a political committee that is neither a party committee nor an authorized committee of a candidate. PACs directly or indirectly established, administered, or financially supported by a corporation or labor organization are called separate segregated funds (SSFs). Other PACs are called non-connected committees.

  • I'm really not certain my answer is right, although I wasn't able to find anything better. I hope someone more knowledgeable than me comes along and either confirms this, or posts another answer which is better sourced. – Bobson Mar 2 '16 at 23:38
  • FECA 100.15: "§ 100.15 Political party ( 52 U.S.C. 30101(16)). Political party means an association, committee, or organization which nominates or selects a candidate for election to any Federal office, whose name appears on an election ballot as the candidate of the association, committee, or organization." law.cornell.edu/cfr/text/11/100.15 Interestingly it does not apply if the party operates only at state level (i.e. its candidates do not run for any federal offices). – Fizz Aug 10 '18 at 3:08
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Bobson is basically correct; here are few more details

FECA 100.15:

§ 100.15 Political party ( 52 U.S.C. 30101(16)). Political party means an association, committee, or organization which nominates or selects a candidate for election to any Federal office, whose name appears on an election ballot as the candidate of the association, committee, or organization.

And if you wonder why that is so broadly stated... it probably has something to do with (quoting from "Paradoxes of Political Parties in American Constitutional Development") the jurisprudence on political parties' real vs. declared form:

Terry v. Adams, 345 U.S. 641 (1953). In an effort to circumvent the decisions in Smith v. Allwright, the Texas Democratic Party created the Jaybird Democratic Association with its so-called Jaybird Primary. This was a whites-only, pre-primary device used to screen Democratic hopefuls before they could run in the Democratic primary. Democratic officials claimed this was merely a private “club” and therefore beyond the scope of federal regulation. Here Terry and other African-Americans filed suit against Adams and other state election authorities claiming their 15th Amendment rights had been violated. Speaking for an 8 to one majority, Justice Hugo Black ruled: “[T]he Jaybird primary has become an integral part, indeed the only effective part, of the elective process that determines who shall rule and govern the county. The effect of the whole procedure, Jaybird primary plus Democratic primary plus general election, is to do precisely that which the Fifteenth Amendment forbids—strip Negroes of every vestige of influence in selecting the officials who control the local county matters that intimately touch the daily lives of citizens.” This was the final nail in the white primary coffin.

So basically having something that was called a "[private] club" but which did all the important business of the party didn't fly with the Supreme Court. Which is probably why the FECA is so broad and calls a party almost anything that gets nominees into (federal) elections.

Interestingly FECA does not apply if the party operates only at state level i.e. its candidates do not run for any federal offices. (Note that Supreme Court decisions like Terry v. Adams still apply, even to such putative "non-federal" parties.) There might be definitions in every State's laws, given the wide variance in state-level regulations for parties,

Richard Hardy explains in “Paradoxes of Political Parties in American Constitutional Development,” [that] regulations of political parties are typically found at the state level and vary from state to state.

Alas, I couldn't find a recent review of such laws with respect to party definition. I found a paper titled "The Legal Status of American Political Parties" but it's from 1940, so obsolete by now as a law review except in very broad terms, but a few nuggets that probably still apply (to some extent) are:

To gain a concept of the legal position of American political parties, a great deal of legislation which differs widely in many particulars among the forty-eight states must be surveyed, [...]

No one of the forty-eight state constitutions contains a forthright authorization of political parties, but the words "political party" or "party" appear one or more times in the constitutions of seventeen states [ Alabama, California, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, Nevada, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Virginia, and Utah], and the word "convention," obviously meaning a convention of a political party, appears in one other constitution [Delaware]. [...]

The mere mention of political parties in the state constitution, or any one of the incidental references to political parties as found in a number of state constitutions, is probably sufficient to establish them on a firm footing in constitutional law, and to give them a constitutional right to exist. The courts have seldom been called upon to interpret constitutional passages of this nature, and there appears to be only one decision of a state supreme court extant holding that the mention of the term "political party" in the constitution is enough to grant recognition. In 1912, the Oklahoma supreme court said that a constitutional provision making it mandatory for the legislature to provide for the creation of election boards, not more than a majority of whose members should be selected from the same political party, amounted to "a constitutional recognition of political party organization."

In more practical terms at least at federal level

Forming a new national or state political party organization: New party organizations must register with the FEC when they raise or spend money over certain thresholds in connection with a federal election.

Each US state probably has something similar... but again I couldn't find a survey of the procedures in every state.


As a trans-Atlantic comparative footnote, I have to say that the EU is much better in this information-summarizing respect, as they put out their own survey of member states laws on parties. However, from that we find that the US case is not so uncommon over the pond, e.g.

Belgium does not have a party law, and no conditions for establishing political parties are specified in electoral law. The law only regulates parties once established, by organizing the state funding of parties and the control of their finances. But it does not give a definition of parties, nor the conditions for the registration of a political party. A party is any political group with elected representatives and that is eligible to claim for state funding.

France and Italy are in a fairly similar position, according to that survey. However the majority of EU countries (including the UK and Germany) do have more elaborate party laws.

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    Nice writeup! If anyone has a list of the procedures for registering a party in each state, it'll be Ballotpedia. I didn't see anything on a quick look-through, though. – Bobson Aug 10 '18 at 22:06

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