Tennessee GOP calling for closed primaries

Robert Houk • Dec 4, 2018 at 12:00 AM

Top officials with the Tennessee Republican Party want to stop “crossover” voting in GOP elections by closing the state’s current open primary system.

The GOP’s State Executive Committee approved a resolution Saturday asking the Republican-controlled Tennessee General Assembly to require residents register by party affiliation. Currently, Tennessee law allows registered voters to request the partisan primary ballot they wish to mark on election day.

Third District State Executive Committee members Todd Fowler and Anita Hodges Taylor split on the issue, with the Johnson City commissioner among the 45 voting “yes,” and Taylor being one of the 14 “no” votes.

Taylor said she polled Republican leaders in Carter, Unicoi and Washington counties and most said they are happy with the current primary process. She said they believe the open primary system has helped the GOP elect better nominees, such as U.S. Rep. Phil Roe and Washington County Mayor Joe Grandy.

“They told me we might not have Roe as our congressman if it weren’t for Democrats crossing over,” she said.

Many states, including neighboring North Carolina, require residents to declare themselves as a Democrat, Republican or independent when they register to vote. In doing so, residents can only vote in their stated party’s primary. Those who declare themselves independents can’t vote in a primary.

Fowler said the Republican Executive Committee has recommended that voters be allowed to change their registration up to 60 days before a primary election.

“That means it won’t be set in stone,” Fowler said, noting voters would still have an opportunity to change their party affiliation.

Fowler said most of the comments he has read from emails and on social media about closing partisan primaries have been favorable.

“Many are asking why Tennessee hasn’t already done this,” he said.

Saturday’s meeting of the State Executive Committee was the first for Fowler and Taylor, who were elected in November. In addition to calling for primaries to be closed in Tennessee, the GOP committee also voted to ask state lawmakers to:

• Increase the number of signatures required to run for public office to be reflective of the level of the office being sought.

• Require a special election to be called for public offices in the case of a vacancy within 45 days of the general election.

“These common-sense resolutions will help maintain the integrity of our elections and elect the best-qualified Republican candidates to federal, state and local offices,” said Scott Golden, who was re-elected chairman of the Tennessee Republican Party. “We ask that the General Assembly consider and adopt the changes put forward by the State Executive Committee.”

Democrats reached Monday said they are opposed to closing Tennessee’s primaries.

“No Tennessean should be required to join a political party in order to exercise their constitutional right to vote, including independent voters,” said Mary Mancini, the chairwoman of the Tennessee Democratic Party. “And as the share of independent voters continues to increase in Tennessee, this move would suppress them from making their voices heard in the primary process. This is a solution in search of a problem.”

Kate Craig, who heads the Washington County Democratic Party, said the Republican proposal would “suppress voter participation” in what has been an “an open process.” Craig said she is not surprised by the GOP committee’s recommendations.

“We have been hearing rumblings about this coming from across the aisle for months,” she said. “Democrats want to increase voter participation.”

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