Usually non-government organisations get to decide who their members are. For example, I can't become president of the local bowling club by getting a lot of my friends to register "bowling" and vote me in despite the wishes of the paying members.

Instead, to become a member of the bowling club, I have to apply to become a member, of which I can be rejected, for pretty much any reason at all aside from a few limited reasons listed in anti-discrimination law. For example, being a recent outspoken member of a rival bowling club would be a reason to reject.

This is freedom of association. People can voluntarily form groups consisting of members they mutually accept. It's the basis of the right to form political parties in almost every liberal democracy.

Except the United States, it seems.

In Australia, when applying for political party membership there are particular exclusions, such as running against an endorsed candidate of that party in the past. Even being a member of another party within the past gets questions asked. People can and have been kicked out of parties just for saying rude things on social media. Also, if accepted, an annual membership fee, determined by the party, must be paid.

This is free association. It's 1st amendment stuff. But it seems like political parties in the U.S. don't have 1st amendment rights. For the Democrats, you've got Bernie Sanders running, who runs against Democrats as a socialist. And with the Republicans, you've got Trump, who has been a Democrat for most of this century.

If the U.S. government(s) determine who can be members of political parties, not the parties as private organisations themselves, surely this is a gross violation of not only the first amendment but democracy itself.

Perhaps someone from the U.S. can explain this, as on the face of it the U.S. governments meddling with political parties seems more like its China than the place with a Bill of Rights.

  • 3
    A few errors. Bernie sanders is a socialist democrat. He's not part of the socialist party. The US Government doesn't choose who can be a part of political parties. As for freedom of association, that goes both ways. The party is able to decide which candidates they want to associate for the best interest of their party. The reason Sanders is currently running with Democrats is because he's part of the Democratic party. Trump is running as a republican because he's part of the Republican party. Neither may get the party's nomination...
    – user1530
    Aug 14, 2015 at 4:57
  • ...at which point the party may decide to dis-associate themselves with the candidate.
    – user1530
    Aug 14, 2015 at 4:59
  • 2
    there's no formal application in this sense. He's currently running as a democrat because he'd like to get the democratic nomination. The democrats could simply say 'no' but then they risk alienating a whole lot of democrats which could make things worse for them in the long run. That he's agreed to not run as an independent if he doesn't get the nomination shows that he's 'playing ball' with the democrats so there's no real strong reason to boot him yet.
    – user1530
    Aug 14, 2015 at 5:52
  • 2
    I'm trying to figure out how allowing the voters to choose candidates is less democratic than having party elites pick who may have the party nomination and who can't run. I'm really not getting how that works; the Australian system is the one that works like China.
    – cpast
    Aug 14, 2015 at 12:18
  • 2
    Anyone can run for parliament in Australia, the party elite can't stop people running. They can only stop people using their party name. The CCP picking their own candidates isn't anti democratic, the fact that they're the only party that's allowed to run is the problem.
    – Clinton
    Aug 14, 2015 at 23:40

2 Answers 2


In theory political parties in the U.S. have control over their membership, however it doesn't matter much in practice. One of the more unique things about the U.S. election process is that the rules are explicitly left to the states to determine on their own rules. The election date and use of the electoral college for the president are pretty much the only things mandated by the constitution, everything else varies widely.

To get on a ballot for a particular party it generally requires some combination of voter signatures and registration fees both to the state and/or the local branch of the party.

When it comes to choosing candidates there are states that require declaring a party you affiliate with upon registration and only allow you to participate in that primary election. There are states that only require you to declare a party at the time of voting in a primary. There are states that caucus instead as well.


Do the Democratic/Republican parties have any control over their membership?

That depends entirely on how you define "Membership".

  • If you mean a registered voter, then no. A party cannot force someone to either register or withdraw their registration.

    In a most famous corollary, there were several well publicized cases where activists from an opposite party registered with the "wrong" party merely to be able to influence that party's primary elections.

  • If you mean a political operative, then yes. They are hired by either a politician running on a party's platform, or an actual party organization (local or national). So there's a degree of control over who gets hired, especially for the latter.

  • If you mean a politician running for an office under the party's name, then both yes and no.

    • No, a party has no control over someone declaring that they will run on a party's platform in a primary. I'm pretty sure most of RNC party machine would dearly love to expunge the uncomfortable event named "Donald Trump" from its collective consciousness.

    • Yes, a party has some control over choosing who will represent them on a ballot in a general election. This is largely decided by the party, typically using well-known methods following rules known in advance (primaries, conventions, etc...). This means that they can't simply reject someone who won a primary despite not liking them, EXCEPT via specific influence via convention mechanisms (super-delegates in D presidential convention being the main known example).

      There's also indirect control, where the party can exert its influence to help specific candidates to better or worse in the primaries (endorsements being only one of the myriad ways. Debate inclusion/exclusion. inter-candidate tactics. etc...).

      • Having said that, a person can ALSO run outside the party control per se, on a 3rd party OR even as a write-in candidate.

      There are objective rules in each election that govern who can and cannot be on the ballot. Having a party endorsement isn't the only means of getting on the ballot.

Do the Democratic/Republican parties have any control over ... primary voters?

  • If you mean over who votes in the direct primary/caucus, then not in practice.

    While some outlier rules may exist, majority of the states with either caucuses or primaries only have ONE minor control: they can declare their event "closed", where only people registered to vote for that party are allowed to vote. This is practically meaningless as there's no way to control WHO registers to vote for the party, as discussed above.

  • If you mean over who votes in the conventions, then somewhat. For example, Iowa convention voters are elected during caucuses... BUT, they are unbound in their convention votes from the results of the caucus vote. Meaning, that they can theoretically choose to vote for anyone - even if it doesn't match who the primary voters intended to vote for. And since convention delegates tend to be parts of the Party machine more than not, they are far more likely to follow the Party wishes than a random voter would.

  • 4
    "No, a party has no control over someone declaring that they will run on a party's platform in a primary. I'm pretty sure most of RNC party machine would dearly love to expunge the uncomfortable event named "Donald Trump" from its collective consciousness." Wow, this answer hasn't aged well... :P Feb 22, 2019 at 15:48
  • 1
    Two years on from the comment above and it has aged even worse :O
    – Jan
    Feb 8, 2021 at 9:26

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