Tennessee Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey isn’t sold on state Rep. Tony Shipley’s call for closed primaries in the aftermath of Shipley’s 10-vote victory over former Kingsport Alderman Ben Mallicote in the 2nd House District GOP primary.
So begins a Hank Hayes story today. The rest of his report::
“I’m hesitant about that because we have gained (Republican) majorities in the state Senate and state House, and the way we’ve done that is literally hundreds of thousands of people across this state decide they are no longer Democrats and they want to be Republicans,” said Ramsey, R-Blountville. “When I came in the state House (in the 1990s), I’m not sure there were one or two Republicans serving west of the Tennessee River, and now it is almost all Republicans. I’m not sure we want to tell those (Democratic voters) they are not welcome in our party.”
Earlier this week, Shipley met with Republican House Speaker Beth Harwell to pitch the idea of closed primaries after his election review showed more than 1,200 GOP primary voters had previously voted in one or more Democratic primaries, and that he believed most were Democrats who voted for Mallicote.
Shipley, R-Kingsport, called his number a “guesstimate” although he didn’t have complete data from the Sullivan County Election Commission.
“The more accurate number would be a broad number from 200 to 2,000 (voters), but you can’t define it too precisely yet…” Shipley said. “We’re working on the numbers because we’re going to need it for closed primaries.”
Sullivan County Elections Administrator Jason Booher, however, determined that 973 voters — or 14 percent of 2nd House District GOP primary ballots — had voted in at least one Democratic primary since the February 2008 presidential primary.
“There is no legal criteria for who is a Democrat and who is a Republican other than when you apply to vote that is your indication that you are affiliated with that party,” Booher said. “And the law does allow for a voter to change their mind from primary to primary. … I’m not saying there are 970-some crossover votes in this p r i m a r y. ”
Primary results certified by the Sullivan County Election Commission showed Shipley with 3,405 votes compared to Mallicote’s 3,395 votes.
Mallicote, who is not contesting the results, won early voting and the election day vote, but absentee votes catapulted Shipley to victory.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, an open primary allows any registered voter to cast a vote in a primary regardless of political affiliation. Open primary proponents say this system gives voters maximum flexibility because they can cross party lines, but opponents say it dilutes a political party’s ability to nominate its own candidate without interference from nonmembers.
In a closed primary, only voters who are registered as members of a political party prior to the primary date may participate in the candidate nomination process.
Tennessee’s primary system is described by NCSL as a “hybrid” that allows crossover voting but also enables lawful challenges to a voter’s bona fide political affiliation at the voting location by a poll watcher or election official.
“To my knowledge no voter has ever been challenged for any reason when applying to vote in an election in Sullivan County,” Booher said.
Under state law, Shipley had the option of appointing poll watchers to look out for Democrats participating in the GOP primary election but “did not attempt to appoint poll watchers before or after the deadline to do so,” according to Booher.
“I didn’t feel like it was necessary at the time,” Shipley said of appointing poll watchers. “In the Republican primary, I didn’t expect to see an active effort to recruit (Democrats). (But) I’ve never seen a Republican do a direct mailer telling Democrats they can do that.”
Indeed, Mallicote deployed a direct mail piece before the primary telling voters: “Tennessee is an ‘open primary’ state. … You do not have to be previously registered or formally affiliated with a party to vote in a primary.”
Ramsey, who endorsed Shipley in the primary, said there will be times crossover voters will try to impact an election.
“I’m sure there are times in Davidson County that Republicans may cross over and make a difference in a campaign. … (But) in the great scheme of things, I’m not quite convinced on that. … I think it’s highly overrated, the number of crossover votes that are out there,” Ramsey said.
But state Rep. Jon Lundberg, who also endorsed Shipley, said “there is some merit” in having closed primaries.
“I think Republicans should vote in the Republican primary and Democrats should vote in the Democratic primary,” said Lundberg, R-Bristol. “That’s pretty much the way it was meant to be.”
Kingsport’s Mack Patton, a Tennessee Republican Party State Executive Committee member, said the problem with a closed primary is it prohibits someone who has “a real change of heart” from easily switching parties.
Tennessee Democratic Party spokesman Brandon Puttbrese said Shipley needs to move on to something besides advocating closed primaries.
“The number of out-of-work Tennesseans is on the rise, wages are falling, families are struggling, and Representative Shipley is focused on himself and his next election. It’s as shameful as it is pathetic,” Puttbrese said in an e-mail. “There may be a time to look at open primaries versus closed primaries in the future, but we clearly have issues — more important than securing Representative Shipley’s job — that need our immediate attention now.”
Shipley will face Democrat Bruce Dotson, who received 531 votes in the Democratic primary, in the November general election.