410 U.S. 752 (1973), 71-1371, Rosario v. Rockefeller

Docket Nº:No. 71-1371
Citation:410 U.S. 752, 93 S.Ct. 1245, 36 L.Ed.2d 1
Party Name:Rosario v. Rockefeller
Case Date:March 21, 1973
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 752

410 U.S. 752 (1973)

93 S.Ct. 1245, 36 L.Ed.2d 1




No. 71-1371

United States Supreme Court

March 21, 1973

Argued December 13, 1972




Petitioners challenge the constitutionality of New York Election Law § 186, which requires a voter to enroll in the party of his choice at least 30 days before the general election in order to vote in the next party primary. Though eligible to enroll before the previous general election, petitioners failed to do so, and were therefore ineligible to vote in the 1972 primary. The Court of Appeals, reversing the District Court, upheld the New York scheme, which it found to be a permissible deterrent against the practice of primary election "raiding" by opposing party members.

Held: New York's delayed-enrollment scheme did not violate petitioners' constitutional rights. Pp. 756-762.

(a) Section 186 did not absolutely prohibit petitioners from voting in the 1972 primary, but merely imposed a time deadline on their enrollment, which they chose to disregard. Pp. 756-758.

(b) The statute does not deprive voters of their right under the First and Fourteenth Amendments to associate with the party of their choice or subsequently to change to another party, provided that the statutory time limit for doing so is observed. Pp. 758-759.

(c) The cut-off date for enrollment, which occurs about eight months before a presidential, and 11 months before a nonpresidential, primary, is not arbitrary when viewed in light of the legitimate state purpose of avoiding disruptive party raiding. Pp. 760-761.

458 F.2d 649, affirmed.

STEWART, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and WHITE, BLACKMUN, and REHNQUIST, JJ., joined. POWELL, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which DOUGLAS, BRENNAN, and MARSHALL, JJ., joined, post, p. 763.

Page 753

STEWART, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE STEWART delivered the opinion of the Court.

For more than 60 years, New York has had a closed system of primary elections, whereby only enrolled members of a political party may vote in that party's primary.1 Under the State's Election Law, a registered voter enrolls as a party member by depositing an enrollment blank in a locked enrollment box. The last day for enrollment is 30 days before the general election each year. Section 186 of the Election Law provides that the enrollment boxes shall not be opened until the Tuesday following the general election, and party affiliations are then entered on the State's official registration books. The voter is then duly enrolled as a member of his party and may vote in a subsequent primary election.2

Page 754

[93 S.Ct. 1248] The effect of § 186 is to require a voter to enroll in the party of his choice at least 30 days before the general election in November in order to vote in the next subsequent party primary. If a voter fails to meet this deadline, he cannot participate in a party primary until after the following general election. Section 187 provides an exemption from this waiting period for certain classes of voters, including persons who have attained voting age after the last general election, persons too ill to enroll during the previous enrollment period, and persons who moved from one place to another within a single county. Under § 187, these classes of voters may be specially enrolled as members of a party even after the general election has taken place.3

Page 755

The petitioners are New York residents who became eligible to vote when they came of age in 1971. Although they could have registered and enrolled in a political party before the cut-off date in 1971 -- October 2 -- they failed to do so.4 Instead, they waited until early December, 1971, to register and to deposit their enrollment blanks. At that time, they could not be specially and immediately enrolled in a party under § 187, since they had attained the voting age before, rather than after, the 1971 general election. Hence, pursuant to § 186, their party enrollment could not become effective until after the November, 1972, general election. Because of New York's enrollment scheme, then, the petitioners were not eligible to vote in the [93 S.Ct. 1249] presidential primary election held in June, 1972.

Page 756

The petitioners filed these complaints for declaratory relief, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that § 186 unconstitutionally deprived them of their right to vote in the June primary and abridged their freedom to associate with the political party of their choice. The District Court, in an unreported opinion, granted them the declaratory relief sought. The Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed, holding § 186 constitutional. 458 F.2d 649. We granted certiorari, but denied the petitioners' motion for summary reversal, expedited consideration, and a stay. 406 U.S. 957 (1972).5

The petitioners argue that, through § 186, New York disenfranchised them by refusing to permit them to vote in the June, 1972, primary election on the ground that they had not enrolled in a political party at least 30 days prior to the preceding general election. More specifically, they contend that § 186 has operated to preclude newly registered voters, such as themselves, from participating in the primary election of the party of their choice. According to the petitioners, New York has no "compelling state interest" in its delayed-enrollment scheme so as to justify such disenfranchisement, and hence the scheme must fall. In support of this argument, the petitioners rely on several cases in which this Court has struck down, as violative of the Equal Protection Clause, state statutes that disenfranchised certain groups of people. Carrington v. Rash, 380 U.S. 89 (1966); Kramer v. Union

Page 757

School District, 395 U.S. 621 (1969); Cipriano v. City of Houma, 395 U.S. 701 (1969); Evans v. Cornman, 398 U.S. 419 (1970); City of Phoenix v. Kolodziejski, 399 U.S. 204 (1970); Dunn v. Blumstein, 405 U.S. 330 (1972).

We cannot accept the petitioners' contention. None of the cases on which they rely is apposite to the situation here. In each of those cases, the State totally denied the electoral franchise to a particular class of residents, and there was no way in which the members of that class could have made themselves eligible to vote. In Carrington, for instance, the Texas Constitution disabled all servicemen from voting in Texas, no matter how long they had lived there. In Kramer, residents who were not property owners or parents were completely precluded from voting in school board elections. In Cipriano and Kolodziejski, the States prohibited non-property owners from ever voting in bond elections. In Evans, Maryland refused to permit residents at the National Institutes of Health, located within its borders, ever to vote in state elections. And in Dunn, Tennessee totally disenfranchised newly arrived residents, i.e., those who had been residents of the State less than a year or residents of the county less than three months before the election.

Section 186 of New York's Election Law, however, is quite different. It did not absolutely disenfranchise the class to which the petitioners belong -- newly registered voters who were eligible to enroll in a party before the previous general election. Rather, the statute merely imposed a time deadline on their enrollment, which they had to meet in order to participate in the next primary. [93 S.Ct. 1250] Since the petitioners attained voting age before the October 2, 1971, deadline, they clearly could have registered and enrolled in the party of their choice before that date and been eligible to vote in the June, 1972,

Page 758

primary.6 Indeed, if the petitioners had not been able to enroll by the October 2, 1971, deadline because they did not attain the requisite age until after the 1971 general election, they would have been eligible for special enrollment under § 187. The petitioners do not say why they did not enroll prior to the cut-off date; however, it is clear that they could have done so, but chose not to. Hence, if their plight can be characterized as disenfranchisement at all, it was not caused by § 186, but by their own failure to take timely steps to effect their enrollment.7

For the same reason, we reject the petitioners' argument that § 186 violated their First and Fourteenth Amendment right of free association with the political party of their choice. Since they could have enrolled in a party in time to participate in the June, 1972, primary, § 186 did not constitute a ban on their freedom of association, but merely a time limitation on when they had to act in order to participate in their chosen party's next primary.8

Page 759

Indeed, under the New York law, a person may, if he wishes, vote in a different party primary each year. All he need do is to enroll in a new political party between the prior primary and the October cut-off date. For example, one June he could be a registered Republican and vote in the Republican primary. Before enrollment closed the following October, he could enroll in the Democratic Party. Since that enrollment would be effective after the November general election and before the following February 1, he could then vote in the next Democratic primary. Before the following October, he could register to vote as a Liberal, and so on. Thus, New York's scheme does not "lock" a voter into an unwanted preexisting party affiliation from one primary to the next.9

Page 760

[93 S.Ct. 1251] The only remaining question, then, is whether the time limitation imposed by § 186 is so severe as itself to constitute an unconstitutionally onerous burden on the petitioners' exercise of the...

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