Lawmaker Wants to Put Squeeze on Open Primaries

Under current law, Tennessee has “open primaries.” Voters can choose which party primary they want to vote in on Election Day, but there’s a move to change that.

On election day, the voter tells the clerk which primary he wants. The clerk marks a box on the voting slip, and the citizen walks toward the ballot machine.

Next election day you can choose a different party primary. Nobody cares.

Except some strong party loyalists. They don’t like Democrats voting in Republican races, and vice versa.

State Senator Stacy Campfield, a Knoxville Republican, has filed a bill to make cross-over voting more difficult.

“You know, having a closed primary for people who are members of that party, it’s common sense. To allow open party primaries, where people can cross over and vote wherever they want, would be sort of like me telling you how your family….where your family should go on vacation.”

Under Campfield’s proposal, you’d have to write your party on your permanent voter registration card by the deadline to register to vote. That’s usually a month before Election Day.

The issue has arisen in Republican circles several times recently. In the gubernatorial election two years ago, candidate Ron Ramsey suggested closed primaries, but his competitors Zach Wamp and Bill Haslam said they liked the open system.

Although primary elections are seen to benefit parties, they aren’t paid for by the parties. Presidential primaries are financed by the state, and the state primary races are paid for by the counties.

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The bill is SB 2847 Campfield / HB 3140 Hill. The House sponsor is Matthew Hill, a Jonesborough Republican.

Tennessee is one of at least 18 states with open primaries, a count that comes from FairVote.org.

Senator Campfield thinks open primaries invite mischief from members of the competing party.

“Well I think it happens all the time that people cross over and try and elect a weaker candidate …I see it on a regular basis. Or a candidate that is more in line with the opposite… the opposing party’s point of view.”

In 2011 the state Republican Executive Committee discussed going to closed primaries but reportedly decided the issue would be too divisive within the party.

Changing to a closed primary system invites discussion of just who is a Republican, who’s a Democrat, and who’s “none of the above.” Some partisan figures on both sides say that making it easier to vote in a primary helps brings more independent voters aboard.

But those independents, if they cross their fingers and sign up ahead of time to vote in a formal political party primary, would face a new test at the polls. They would not only vote in the primary, they would be required to agree with the party.

That’s under another bill, HB 3139 Hill / SB 2846 Campfield. The measure requires the voter to initial a statement that the chosen party and candidates “most closely represent my views.”

Rasmussen Reports polled citizens in December and found this breakdown of how respondents described themselves:
• Republican: 35.4%
• Democrat: 32.7%
• Unaffiliated:32%

The conventional political wisdom (based on scores of polls over the past 20 years) say American voters break down one-third GOP, one-third Democrat, and one-third independent. Political consultants quote that figure when they outline plans aimed at bringing independents aboard for a particular campaign.

In 2010, the newspaper USA Today reported that during the previous two years, the number of Americans who identified themselves as “independent” grew twice as fast as Republicans and Democrats. USA Today totaled the figures from numbers collected from states with closed primaries.

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