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Contributed photo by Nathan Morgan / Chattanooga attorney Ward Crutchfield, before his days as a longtime Democratic state senator, thought the Democratic Party ought to push for closed primaries and no crossover voting.

It wasn't so long ago that the shoe was on the other foot.

A few voters grumbled Friday about the recent Hamilton County primary election at a meeting of the Hamilton County Election Commission, complaining about election integrity and the possibility of crossover votes from Democrats helping Republican Weston Wamp win the GOP primary for county mayor.

No specific wrongdoing was alleged, and the auditor-in-charge recommended the May 3 election results be certified, which they were.

Wamp won the Republican primary by 318 votes out of 40,709 cast. Without more information, it's difficult to make a definitive statement as to whether Democrat votes gave him his margin of victory.

Nevertheless, there are some who may believe it's time to have closed primaries, where only voters registered as Republicans or Democrats may vote in their respective primaries.

We have never liked that idea, believe it robs voters of their freedom and feel it keeps true independent voters from having a say in any primary.

But it's what some state and local Democrats wanted to do in the mid and late 1970s.

Those who advocated for party registration and no crossover voting could see their decades of dominance in Tennessee slipping away. Though the state legislature would be dominated by Democrats into the 21st century, the state by the late 1970s had voted for a Republican for president in five of the previous seven elections. It had elected two Republican U.S. senators and a Republican governor.

In 1976, former California Gov. Ronald Reagan was reaping crossover votes from disgruntled Democrats — many who had voted for former Alabama Gov. George Wallace in the 1968 presidential election and in the 1972 presidential preference primaries — in an effort to wrest the GOP nomination from President Gerald Ford.

Tennessee's two U.S. senators, Howard Baker and Bill Brock, openly encouraged crossover voting from Democrats — but for Ford. The party's 1974 gubernatorial nominee, Lamar Alexander, felt likewise. And the state's former Republican governor, Winfield Dunn, said he could not criticize crossover voters.

Reagan wound up winning Tennessee's 3rd District by around 2,000 votes and Hamilton County by nearly 3,600 votes but lost Tennessee by 1.18% of the vote.

Former Tennessee Democratic U.S. Sen. Ross Bass was one of those who voted for Reagan. He did so, he said, to show how easily Democrats could cross over and not be challenged, and also as revenge for what he felt Republicans did to him in the 1966 Democratic primary for U.S. Senate.

Bass had been elected senator two years earlier to fill out the unexpired term of the late Sen. Estes Kefauver, but he lost re-election in the primary to then-Gov. Frank Clement with, he said, Republican crossover votes. In November, the state elected Baker over Clement.

By the late 1970s, then Gov. Ray Blanton, a Democrat, recognized the handwriting on the wall. He was a full-throated advocate of closed primaries — of keeping his sheep in the fold — and forbidding crossover voting.

He tried getting the Democratic-dominated legislature to pass such a bill at least three times — with either or both tenets — but was unsuccessful.

In November 1978, the chairman of the Hamilton County Democratic Party, Ward Crutchfield, and the Democratic chairman of the Hamilton County Commission, Floyd "Flop" Fuller, both voiced support for party registration and for state primary runoff elections.

Earlier that month, voters had elected Alexander governor over Democrat Jake Butcher. Crutchfield alleged that Republican crossover votes gave Butcher the nomination over Bob Clement and Richard Fulton but supported Alexander in the general election.

However, he wasn't enthusiastic about the prospects for such a bill.

"Republicans would oppose it," Crutchfield said, according to Times Free Press archives, "because they recognize it would build a stronger Democratic Party. And some Democrats also would oppose it because they need Republican support in the Democratic primary to win nomination."

Newspaper archives do not reveal any local races over the last 50 years where crossover voting, either for a Republican or Democrat, was alleged to make a difference.

Meanwhile, the state's GOP Executive Committee has debated closed primaries since at least 2010, but the idea has never drawn majority support.

We don't believe the result of the Hamilton County Republican mayoral primary, even if it can be shown that at least 318 Democrats made the difference in the race, is going to change any minds in the state party about open primaries. Open primaries just scream "fair," while closed primaries shout "forced," "regimented" and "insular."

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