Sohn: Tennessee should rethink primaries, but not close them

Sohn: Tennessee should rethink primaries, but not close them

December 5th, 2018 by Pam Sohn in Opinion Times

Just when you thought it couldn't get much harder to exercise your vote in Tennessee, our state GOP's State Executive Committee floated a new idea.

On Saturday, the committee approved a resolution asking the majority-Republican Tennessee General Assembly to close our primary elections system by requiring all voters to register by party and vote only in their party's primary.

No more voting for the best person. No more independent crossover voting to ensure getting the best possible choice in leadership. Only registered Republicans could vote in GOP primaries and only registered Democrats could vote in Democratic primaries.

And independents — an ever growing number of voters — couldn't vote in a primary election at all.

Closing Tennessee's primaries is a bad idea on many levels, and it signifies a hard-right movement in the state's already too-red political movement.

Currently, Tennessee law allows registered voters to choose the party primary ballot they wish to mark on election day.

Section 2-7-115 of the Tennessee Code stipulates that a voter must either be registered with a political party or "must declare" his or her "affiliation" with the party at the polls on primary election day in order to vote in that party's primary. But declaring one's "affiliation" with a party in the Volunteer State now amounts to checking the box for which ballot you request as you sign in at your primary polling place.

The state's GOP Executive Committee has debated closed primaries since at least 2010, but the idea never had majority support — 45 yes votes to 14 no votes — until this year. In 2015, after two hours of debate, the committee killed the idea 37-29. Four years before that, closing primaries had even less support.

When the 2015 debate was on the table, Tennessee's U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander weighed in, telling the Nashville Tennessean that closing our primaries would squash the GOP's ability to broaden its base.

"Over the years Republicans have welcomed into our primary Democrats and independents who wanted to vote for Goldwater, Reagan, Robertson, Perot, the Tea Party and our statewide candidates. Most of these Tennesseans are now regular Republican voters and our party is larger, more successful and more conservative. Why would we want to shut the door on these independent voters now?"

After the committee's Saturday vote, outgoing Republican Gov. Bill Haslam and Republican Gov.-elect Bill Lee said much the same thing.

"If you're a Republican, I think it's a silly proposal," Haslam said. "Think, when we were the minority party forever, if everybody registered and voted by party, I could argue Republicans wouldn't be in as good a position as they've been in."

Funny: On this issue, they're on the same side as Tennessee Democratic Party chairwoman Mary Mancini, who called the proposal "a solution in search of a problem."

"No Tennessean should be required to join a political party in order to exercise their constitutional right to vote, including independent voters," Mancini said. "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."

But proponents of the change argue that it's necessary to stop crossover voting by Democrats in Republican primaries.

State GOP Chairman Scott Golden says it "will help maintain the integrity of our elections and elect the best-qualified Republican candidates to federal, state, and local offices."

House Speaker nominee Glen Casada, a Franklin Republican, told the Associated Press that the idea "has merit and is an issue that needs to be addressed."

Senate Speaker Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, told AP that the door swings both ways: "I think there might be a fear [in the current system] that if there's more than one candidate in a primary, then the other party could end up voting [in a crossover] for one that they like or one that's the weaker of the two. "Sometimes it's that, and sometimes it's really the opposite. I don't think that President Trump would've been elected had there been closed primaries in all the states."

The telling comment, however — the one making it clear that this is a right-wing ego trip and power grab — came from an email of support for closed primaries from John Harris, head of the Tennessee Firearms Association, who blasted those in the legislature who have resisted the proposal and "repeatedly allowed Democrats, progressives, liberals and communists to vote in Republican primaries and influence those outcomes."

That's right up there with Wisconsin and Michigan Republicans trying to limit the power of the new incoming Democratic governors and Democratic attorney generals before they even take office.

Truth be told, if our party leaders — Republican and Democratic — wanted to get out of the way and let the people's voices matter (and our political bases be broadened), they would consider nonpartisan blanket primaries, also sometimes called jungle primaries or top-two primaries. Louisiana, Washington and California all use variations of these nonpartisan primaries.

All candidates are lumped together in one big primary, and the top two vote-getters — regardless of party — advance to the general election race, automatically honing voters' choices in the next go-round to the two candidates a majority think can best do the job.

What a concept.

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