By Erik Schelzig
The executive committee of the state Republican Party on Saturday voted down a proposal to require party registration to vote in Tennessee primaries.
The policy panel rejected the proposal sponsored by committee member Mark Winslow, a former executive director of the state GOP, on a voice vote.
Tennessee voters aren’t registered by party, and voters often decide in which primary to participate depending on campaign developments. The law allows for challenges of people who are not a “bona fide member” of political party, though that status is not clearly defined.
Winslow, who worked on the campaigns of two Republican congressional candidates who narrowly lost their primaries last year, has said his aim is to keep Democrats from voting in Republican primaries and county party organization sessions.
“There’s no litmus test here,” he said. “This is very simply the opinion of this committee that Republicans should have a larger say in how we govern.
“We’re not trying to spark a debate between moderates and conservatives.”
Any change in voting laws would have to be approved by the General Assembly. But Republicans have wide majorities in both chambers, meaning the executive committee decisions carry extra weight.
Republicans have charged that Democrats have sought to “infiltrate” county party organization meetings to influence the direction of those local organizations, and members of both parties have alleged coordinated crossover voting in primaries.
“The reason it’s coming up now is very simple,” Winslow said. “We’ve never had 64 members in the house before, and we’ve never had the numbers to move this forward.”
Committee member John Ryder called the question of closed primaries a “legitimate issue,” but argued that Republicans should aim for inclusiveness in order to grow the party.
Ryder noted that Republicans in the past have held even smaller minorities than Democrats now do in the 99-member House, and that various conservative movements ranging from supporters of former President Ronald Reagan to the tea party have helped swell the GOP ranks.
Republican Gov. Bill Haslam has voiced support for the current open primary system, while Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, has said favors a move toward requiring party registration.