Tennessee GOP seeks to close state's primary voting system

-RR 042700 B May Day Metro---Tennessee State Capitol downtown Nashville. For Issues centerpiece illustration. Photo by Ricky Rogers (The Tennessean) 4/27/2000
-RR 042700 B May Day Metro---Tennessee State Capitol downtown Nashville. For Issues centerpiece illustration. Photo by Ricky Rogers (The Tennessean) 4/27/2000

NASHVILLE - State Republican Party leaders want Tennessee lawmakers to kill the state's open party primary system by enacting a law requiring voters to declare their political party affiliation on registration forms and also register by party if they want to vote in a GOP or Democratic party primary election.

A resolution calling on the GOP-controlled General Assembly to pass a law aimed at barring "cross over" voting was approved Saturday by Tennessee Republican Party State Executive Committee meeting.

Republican SEC members also approved a second resolution calling on lawmakers to increase the number of signatures from registered voters that candidates must gather in order to run for public office.

The current requirement is 25 signatures whether someone is running for a town council or governor or U.S. Senate. Among other things, the state GOP wants to raise the statewide number of signatures to 1,000.

And in yet a third resolution that was approved involving public elected offices, the State Executive Committee wants a state requirement for a special election to be called in the case of a vacancy within 45 days of the general election.

Tennessee Republican Party Chairman Scott Golden said in a news release that "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.

"We ask that the General Assembly consider and adopt the changes put forward by the State Executive Committee," Golden added.

State GOP spokeswoman Candice Dawkins said in an interview that "we've had several SEC members as well as other Republicans that were interested in this resolution. . Obviously, the decision is with them [General Assembly] ultimately, but we have to approve the resolution to let them know where where they [SEC members] sit on the issue."

"None of these resolutions were passed with any specific elected official or candiate in mind," Dawkins said. "People have been interested in the issue of party registration for a while . But especially with so many Republicans - supermajorities in the legislature, and across the state now we now a lot of Republicans in the county offices.

"There are a lot of Democrats who cross over and vote in Republican primaries because we have open primaries and there's no kind of party registration. So our resolution is just encouraging the legislature to take a look at that and move for party registration."

The resolution also says lawmakers should look at creating an option for someone to register as an independent.

An option to register as an independent should also be available to voters.

Tennessee has long been an open primary state, meaning no one must register to vote by party. Republicans, Democrats and independents often vote in any party primary they like. State lawmakers did pass a law that seeks to discourage individuals who aren't "bona fide members" of a political party from crossing over, but the state GOP's resolution says it "does not adequately address the problem."

In the decades when Democrats were in power in Tennessee, their nominees tended to win most general elections. So Republicans often jumped into Democratic primaries to sway the nomination toward a Democratic candidate more to their liking.

Republicans in traditionally East Tennessee were famous for it.

But as the GOP grew in strength in the 1960s and 1970s, Tennessee evolved into a two-party state. And the tradition of voting across party lines in primaries has continued with a number of Democrats opting to vote in GOP primaries.

Some argue having open party primaries is what has helped give Tennessee a national reputation for electing moderates in statewide contests.

But as Republicans moved to political dominance in the state, a number of GOP SEC members as well as some Republican state lawmakers and activists have bristled over Democrats coming in to vote in GOP primaries, arguing it hurts conservative candidates.

A number of other states require registration by party and the candidates run in closed primaries.

With regard to the state GOP SEC's request for increasing the number of signatures of registered voters that candidates must get in order to qualify to run for public office, Tennessee currently has some of the easiest requirements in the nation.

Whether you want to run for town council or governor and U.S. Senate, all it takes are signatures from 25 registered voters. Many states have tiers with the required number of signatures growing depending on the level of the office sought.

Unlike a number of states, Tennessee also doesn't charge candidates any fee to run.

That's led to a rich parade in the state of colorful and sometimes highly controversial people qualifying to run. For example, in 2014 a complete unknown with a famous name - Charlie Brown - unexpectedly won Democrats' gubernatorial nomination.

The GOP's State Executive Committee is calling for a tiered system. Candidates running for any county or municipal office as well as state party executive committees or state convention delegates would still require just 25 registered voters' signatures on their petitions.

But candidates running for the state House of Representatives have to work hard. The required petition registered voters' signatures would rise to 75 to get on the ballot while seeking to get on the ballot to run for state Senate would go to 200 signatures.

Running for the U.S. House of Representatives would rise to 500 signatures on a petition and running for U.S. Senate or for governor would rise to 1,000 signatures.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.

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