Upset over reports of Democrats voting in GOP primaries earlier this month, some Republicans are reviving an previously-shelved effort to require party registration and closed primaries in future Tennessee elections.
State Rep. Tony Shipley, R-Kingsport, and Mark Winslow, a member of the Republican State Executive Committee, say they met Tuesday with House Speaker Beth Harwell to advocate the idea. Harwell, a former state Republican chairman who has previously opposed closed primaries, said she is now reconsidering the proposal.
But state Republican Chairman Chris Devaney voiced opposition to closed primaries Wednesday, saying the open system has led to GOP gains throughout the state and closure could slow or stop the trend of Democrats and independents moving into the Republican fold.
Shipley, who defeated challenger Ben Mallicote by 11 votes according to unofficial Aug. 2 primary returns, said a review of records of those casting ballots in the race shows that 1,262 voters had previously voted in one or more Democratic primaries. Shipley said he believes most were Democrats who voted for Mallicote.
“They all used this opportunity to come in and attack a conservative Republican,” said Shipley. He and Winslow said they believe similar and substantial crossover Democratic voting occurred in other GOP legislative primaries.
Shipley said such practices “pervert the process” by allowing Democrats to influence, or perhaps even decide, Republican nominees.
According to unofficial returns, Shipley received 3,405 votes and Mallicotte 3,394. Democrat Bruce Dotson, unopposed in his primary, got 531 votes. Mallicotte has said he will not contest the GOP primary results, according to the Kingsport Times-News.
Seven Republican incumbents were defeated in Aug. 2 primaries across the state. One of them was House Republican Caucus Chairman Debra Maggart, who in 2011 sponsored a bill to require party registration and closed primaries in Tennessee. At about the same time, the State Republican Executive Committee debated adoption of a resolution calling for a closed primary system.
Both the bill and the resolution were dropped at the time after several Republican leaders voiced concerns about such a move. Devaney said the Executive Committee effectively rejected the idea.
But after this year’s primaries, Shipley and Winslow say the prospects seem enhanced for both the Republican-controlled Legislature and the GOP Executive Committee approving the idea.
“Tony and I did meet about legislation to close primaries in Tennessee,” said Harwell in an emailed statement. “I do understand and share some of his concerns.
“I’m currently looking at what other states do – what works, what doesn’t – and exploring it. I know the Republican Party chair is doing the same. I haven’t made a determination yet, but I am studying the issue,” she said.
Devaney said he opposes Democrats who “maliciously” participate in Republican primaries, but that most who do so are moving into the Republican majority – along with some independents.
He questioned Shipley’s assumption that voters who had previously voted in a single Democratic primary should be considered “real Democratic voters.” If the review is limited to the primary elections starting in 2008, only a handful of voters in House District 2 have voted in two or more Democratic primaries – a better measure, he said — and the rest are voters moving into the Republican party.
“If we close primaries, then we’re basically rejecting people who actively want to participate in the Republican party,” Devaney said.
Shipley said closed primaries do not exclude anyone, but merely call on people to make a decision. He likened the present system to “the wild, wild West.”
Adam Nickas, executive director of the state GOP, said in an April 13, 2011, memo that he had researched closed primaries in other states and voiced misgivings about them.
“During my independent research, I found that closed primaries tend to create a more polarized political landscape in the general election, with the probability that the nominees are not representative of the median voter in the area. Additionally, studies have shown that closed primaries may reduce voter participation, particularly among youth,” Nickas said.
Brandon Puttrese, spokesman for the Democratic party, said the issue is another example of Republican legislators’ tendency toward “saying let’s play politics rather than working for people.”
House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner said open primaries are a Tennessee tradition and he opposes any change. Closed primaries, he said, would unfairly “shut independents out of the process” in areas where one party or the other is dominant.