Cooper: No need to close Tennessee primaries

Cooper: No need to close Tennessee primaries

December 5th, 2018 by Clint Cooper in Opinion Free Press

If the Tennessee Republican Party has its way, primary election voting in the state will be by party registration only.

We think most assuredly that is not the way to go, and we hope a bill to update state election law and enact such a provision installing closed primaries will not see the light of day in next year's General Assembly.

Indeed, we feel the state's open primary has made it easier for the Republican Party to become dominant. As the state Democratic Party moved politically further and further away from most Tennessee voters, the open primary allowed disaffected Democrats to vote in the primary for a Republican candidate who most closely represented their views when the candidate in their party of choice no longer did.

Eventually, many of those voters became loyal Republicans. Today, the party holds super majorities in the state House and state Senate, the governor's office, seven of the state's nine congressional seats and its two U.S. Senate seats.

Last Saturday, the Tennessee Republican Party's State Executive Committee approved three resolutions it hopes the legislature will take up. One of those was this: "This resolution asks the 111th General Assembly to include a question regarding political party affiliation on Tennessee voter registration forms as well as requiring party registration in order to vote in a party's primary election."

We see this as answering a question that hasn't been asked. If there were numerous cases of election results in the state showing Democrats crossing over and voting in Republican primaries in numbers that repeatedly allow for RINOs (Republicans in name only) or weaker Republicans to win primary races (in order to make it easier for Democrats in the general election), the executive committee's resolution might have some merit.

But we cannot recall any state races in recent memory being decided by such a crossover vote, let alone many of them, that would prompt such a resolution.

Oh, Williamson County had a minor dust-up this spring with a couple of known Democrats voting in a Republican primary, and former state Rep. Jim Cobb, R-Spring City, said he believed such crossover voting went on in his 2012 primary.

Closer to home, some crossover voting may have occurred in the primary for the 3rd District Congressional seat in 2014. In that race, two-term incumbent U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann was being challenged in the Republican primary by Weston Wamp, the son of Fleischmann's predecessor, former U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp.

Wamp, though espousing conservative views, repeatedly said he'd be willing to talk across the aisle with Democrats to attempt to pass legislation. Fleischmann, at the time, was not so willing to talk to Democrats but also used incendiary campaign advertising to paint Wamp as something he wasn't.

The incumbent won the race by fewer than 1,500 votes out of nearly 92,000 cast (about 15,000 more votes than were cast in the 2012 Republican primary), so it was assumed some Democrats had crossed the aisle to vote for Wamp.

But no races appear to have been decided by crossover voting.

John Harris, head of the Tennessee Firearms Association, believes otherwise.

"This," he said last week of an open primary, without citing examples, "has repeatedly allowed Democrats, progressives, liberals and communists to vote in Republican primaries and influence their outcomes. We see the results and the harm it has caused — over and over and over."

State Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, said it has been decades "since any of that might have happened. It's not impossible, but I haven't seen any [races decided in that way]."

Closed primaries are "a dream for those who don't want to work during an election. It's a way to allow those in power to stay in power," he said.

A bill essentially closing primaries would have to be considered first by the Senate State and Local Government Committee.

"There's no appetite [there] for that," Gardenhire said.

Currently, Tennessee law says a registered voter is entitled to vote in a primary election if the voter is a "bona fide member" of a party in whose primary the voter wishes to cast a ballot.

But state law also has a provision allowing the voter to declare his or her "allegiance" to the political party in which he or she wants to vote, enabling them to vote.

Several Republicans have said they'd be open to consider the closed primaries resolution in the upcoming session, but few have stepped out in solid support. And outgoing Gov. Bill Haslam, incoming Gov. Bill Lee, state Democratic Party Chairwoman Mary Mancini, state Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, and Gardenhire, among others, all have opposed it.

Plus, in this day when national political parties are at the far ends of the political spectrum, more and more voters choose to say they are independents. In true closed primaries, independents are shut out of the primary process. However, we don't believe anyone ought to be shut out from voting.

No, in this case, we can't buy the argument of Tennessee Republican Party Chairman Scott Golden, who said the resolution — and the two others passed — "will help maintain the integrity of our elections and elect the best-qualified Republican candidates to federal, state and local offices.

The argument just doesn't hold water.

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