Early voting begins Wednesday to pick GOP candidates for a number of contested county government and courthouse offices in Washington County. If there are no Democratic or independent candidates qualified to run for these offices on the Aug. 7 county general ballot, then those races will effectively be decided in the May 6 Republican Primary.
As a result, some area voters who are prone to vote in Democratic primaries for state and federal offices will be lining up to vote Republican in the coming weeks. Tennessee is an open primary state, which means voters (who do not now register to vote as a Democrat or Republican) are allowed to declare their party allegiance at the polls on Election Day.
A little known state law does allow candidates and party officials to position poll workers at precincts to challenge the party allegiance of voters, but this practice is rarely used.
Tennessee’s open primary system has, from time to time, come under fire from both Republicans and Democrats. Some partisans believe the current system promotes mischief in the form of crossover voting. This was a charge made in 2008 by former Congressman David Davis when he lost the Republican Primary for the 1st District seat to Congressman Phil Roe.
I don’t know about the mischief part, but there were Democrats who voted for Roe in that race. I also suspect there will be Democrats voting in the August GOP primary for state offices.
Earlier this year, state Rep. Joe Carr, R-Lascassas, pushed for passage of a bill to require voters in partisan primaries to declare that the party they are voting for “most closely represents (their) values and beliefs.” Carr, who is challenging incumbent Lamar Alexander for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate, told members of a subcommittee of the House Local Government Committee that he brought the legislation “to discourage those in opposing parties from crossing over when their intent is to maliciously malign the election of either primary party.”
The full committee, which is chaired by state Rep. Matthew “Boss” Hill, R-Jonesborough, later voted down Carr’s bill. Their decision was applauded by leaders of both the Republican and Democratic parties in Tennessee.
“Anything that makes it harder for Tennesseans to exercise their constitutional right to vote is wrong-headed, unpatriotic and antithetical to Tennessean and American values,” Roy Herron, chairman of the state Democratic Party, said in a statement.
Chris Devaney, Herron’s counterpart in the state Republican Party, said Carr’s bill would harm his party’s “Red to the Roots” program that is pushing partisan primaries for local offices. One example of this is the decision by Washington County Republicans in 2010 to begin holding a primary to select GOP nominees for the County Commission.
As I’ve noted in previous columns, closing the state’s primary system would be very detrimental in areas like Northeast Tennessee, where most races for local, state and federal offices are decided in the Republican Primary. That’s why many Republican leaders I have talked to say they have no desire to disenfranchise independent voters.
Robert Houk is Opinion page editor for the Johnson City Press. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.