More than twice as many Tennesseans voted early in Republican primaries than in Democratic primaries statewide and the total set a new record for an August election, according to figures posted Sunday on a state website.
Early voting ended on Saturday and the Sunday figures posted by the Division of Elections showed that 337,843 Republicans and 164,621 Democrats took advantage of the pre-election day opportunities. Others who chose not to vote in a primary but voted in local elections pushed the total of early and absentee voting to 530,522.
That would be a record for an August primary. In 2008, only 209,474 people voted early and in 2006, the total was 447,919 in 2006, which was also a gubernatorial election year.
Election Division statistics from past years do not break down the number of Republicans compared to the number of Democrats in early voting. But in 2006, perhaps the most comparable to the current election in recent years, the overall August primary vote was much more evenly matched between Republicans and Democrats.
A total of 421,900 Democrats voted in their 2006 U.S. Senate primary — including both votes cast early and on election day — in a race won by then-Rep. Harold Ford Jr. The Republican total was 481,117 in the Senate primary won by Bob Corker.
The Division of Elections says that that 43.2 percent of the total votes cast in the August, 2006, primary were early votes. In 2008, 46.9 percent of the total vote came early. There has been speculation that about half the total vote this year will be in early voting.
In Knox County, home of Republican gubernatorial candidate and Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam, the early vote total was reported as 36,338, with 33,382 Republicans and 2,660 Democrats casting ballots. Again, the totals include persons who chose not to vote in either primary but did vote in local elections.
In 2008, the Knox early voting total was 20,574; in 2006, 24,042.
Two of the state’s three other largest counties also saw an increase in early voting over past years, the exception being Davidson. There the total was 29,294, including 15,559 in the Republican primary and 13,604 in the Democratic primary.
In Shelby County, where Democratic U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen faces a primary challenge from former Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton, the Democratic total exceeded the Republican total, 47,444 to 37,120.
In Hamilton County, home of GOP gubernatorial candidate and Congressman Zach Wamp, there were 12,221 Republican early votes compared to 8,080 Democratic primary votes.
In Sullivan County, home of Republican gubernatorial candidate and state Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, 10,548 people voted in the GOP primary compared to 2,137 in the Democratic primary.
The apparent surge in Republican primary voting raises the possibility of substantial crossover voting by Democrats, who have no contested gubernatorial primary since Jackson businessman Mike McWherter is unopposed.
Also, Republicans have high-spending, fiercely contested primaries in the 3rd, 6th and 8th congressional districts and a spirited contest in the 4th district. Democratic nominees are unopposed in the 4th and 8th and the party primaries in the 6th and 8th are much more low key than the GOP combat.
Of the three major Republican gubernatorial candidates, only Ramsey supports changing current law to block crossover voting by requiring party registration, as the Associated Press initially reported last week.
“You ought to be voting for who you think is the best person for that position, not who you think your party wants to face that fall,” he said. “That is kind of rigging the election.”
One theory for Democratic crossover voters is to have the weakest possible Republican nominee in November. But another is that crossover voters will pick who they consider the best qualified candidate – known as the “lesser-of-the-evils” approach.
Both Haslam and Wamp disagreed with Ramsey’s support for closed primaries – which was proposed as legislation in the General Assembly last year, but never actively pushed.
“The law in Tennessee is you don’t register by party, so how do you provide for someone who’s changed their mind in the mean time?” Haslam said. “If somebody says they want to vote in (either) primary, they should be able to do that.”
Wamp said he encourages “all clear-thinking, clear-minded responsible Tennesseans” to support him, regardless of their past primary votes.
“As a candidate I want to encourage full participation by everyone,” he said.