Let's say a candidate is running for a federal office, like house or senate. And let's assume they have the minimum requirements to run (often age, citizenship, district/state residence, and some number of signatures). Can they choose whatever party they like as their affiliation on the ballot? For example, can the candidate declare themself to be a Republican or Democrat even if the party has nominated someone else?

I suspect this varies by state, so I'm curious as to the range of legal restrictions.

  • Former Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke is a rather infamous example of someone who ran under the banner of a party he vehemently opposed with every fiber of his being. If the Democratic Party could have stopped him, they would have. Nov 27, 2017 at 16:52

3 Answers 3


In the United States, elections are almost always two stage. In the first stage, people run for the party's nomination. In order to do this, they have to get signatures from people who have registered as that party. Those signatures, possibly combined with a signup fee allow them to participate in the primary election. This applies to the two major parties, the Republicans and the Democrats. Other parties usually do not have government financed primaries, although there are some exceptions, e.g. New York and Alaska.

In the second stage, only the winners of the first stage are able to claim to be Democrats and Republicans. Third parties nominate their candidates separately and depending on their status either get automatic participation like the Democrats and Republicans or more commonly get signatures to get on the general election ballot. Status is normally derived from performance in other elections. For example, the United We Stand party had ballot access in some states in 1996 and 2000 because of Ross Perot's performance in 1992.

There are some states that don't use the primaries to pick the party winners but the top two winners. In those states, two Democrats or two Republicans could be the top two winners. This happened in the California Senate race in 2016. Both Kamala Harris and Loretta Sanchez qualified as Democrats for the first ballot (based on signatures), so both advanced as Democrats.

Excepting those states with non-partisan primaries, as a general rule, a candidate has to win the primary or be selected by some other party process to appear on the ballot as whatever party.

For example, can the candidate declare themself to be a Republican or Democrat even if the party has nominated someone else?

No. Either the state doesn't have party nominations (California, Washington, Louisiana) or the candidate will not be listed under that party unless nominated. Note that states without party nominations may not allow third party or write-in candidates in the general election.

Joe Lieberman actually lost the Democratic party nomination in 2006. He appeared on the general election ballot under his own party (Connecticut for Lieberman).

It might be more accurate to say that the party cannot officially nominate someone outside the government-sponsored primary. I mean, the party organization could do so. But that person would not be on the ballot, so it would be a futile exercise. And that person would generally not get listed as a Democrat even if on the ballot somehow, even if the "party" wants that.

  • 1
    Some states also require that prospective candidates for a party be registered to vote as a member of that party for some period before officially filing for the office.
    – jamesqf
    Nov 26, 2017 at 18:57
  • Being a voter in California, I can say there are a number of elected positions that appear on a ballot that include the candidates' party affiliations with the disclaimer that this is not an official endorsement by a party, but rather that candidate's own identification/declaration. Of course, none of these are for positions as indicated by the OP (House and Senate in particular). Nov 26, 2017 at 20:51

Your question misses a critical step -- how did they get onto the ballot? In most cases, simply announcing that you are running for a particular office does not get you onto the ballot. You have to be nominated by a major party, or get enough signatures, or follow some other approved method.

Typically, a party chooses who its candidates are -- and those people are allowed to represent the party on the ballot.


No, laws to not prevent anyone from running under any party they choose. If there is some kind of closed primary system for a state or municipality, then the voters registered as members of that party obviously have a say over who gets to be the finalist in any election, for that party, but the party, itself, can't stop someone from claiming to be a member of one party or the other, just as they can't stop any individual voter from declaring to be affiliated one way or the other.

Bernie Sanders is and was an independent. Clearly, the DNC did not want him running in their primaries and opposing Hillary Clinton, but they could not stop him from doing so, as long as he filed the required paperwork in each state. He could declare to be in whatever party he wanted.

Other examples - Former Klu Klux Klansman Grand Wizard and current and continuing white supremacist David Duke ran, at different times, under a variety of third-party banners, but also as a declared Republican. He did not get the official endorsement of the the party organization, but they could not stop him from running for US Senate as a Republican candidate, even though they had no desire to have him associated with their "brand."

David Clarke is an outspoken and fairly extreme conservative who actively campaigns against Democratic candidates and the party, and supports the GOP - even being a speaker at their 2016 convention. However, Milwaukee county is an majority-black county, so he has repeatedly run as a Democrat, even though he hates the party and all it stands for, because he's knows that, as an African-American candidate declared as a Democrat, he will garner a certain amount of votes from people who make assumptions about his policy stances based on those demographic characteristics, instead of researching his actual stances. For that county and that position, the Democratic nominee has historically been pretty much assured a victory in the general election, so that's how he's declared himself, and all of his actual election battles have come in the party nominating portion of the electoral cycle.

  • Feel free to share reasons for the downvote(s) Nov 27, 2017 at 19:46

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