Tennessee GOP backs resolution for closed primary elections

Gov.-elect Bill Lee addresses the Tennessee Senate Republican caucus on Monday, Dec. 3, 2018, at the Cordell Hull legislative building in Nashville during their meeting to nominate leaders before the upcoming legislative session that begins in January. (AP Photo/Jonathan Mattise)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee Republican Party officials are suggesting that the state start asking voters to register by party affiliation and limit primary elections to party voters.

But the proposal has drawn mixed reviews among the state’s top Republican elected officials, with no favor coming from the current or incoming governor, but openness to the discussion from top Republican legislative leaders.

The state GOP Executive Committee voted Saturday to offer up the idea for consideration by the Legislature, where Republicans hold supermajorities.

Tennessee voters currently don’t register with political parties. They pick the primary ballot of their choice. Tennessee law does require primary voters to be “bona fide” party members or be willing to “declare allegiance” to the party.

The National Conference of State Legislatures considers Tennessee one of the six states with partially open primaries.

Of the rest of the states, nine have closed primaries, seven have partially closed primaries, nine have primaries open to unaffiliated voters but not opposing party voters, 15 have open primaries and four use a “top-two” type of format, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

GOP chairman Scott Golden supported the idea, saying that closed primaries would help maintain election integrity and elect the best-qualified Republicans. But Tennessee Democratic Party Chairwoman Mary Mancini said Tennesseans — including independent voters, who would be shut out of primaries — shouldn’t have to pick parties to exercise their constitutional right to vote.

Term-limited Republican Gov. Bill Haslam said he’s strongly opposed to the change.

“We’re better off if folks would come into every election and say, ‘Who is the person that is going to do the best at solving the problems that we have?’” Haslam said Monday. “Again, I’m not certain registering by party does anything to advance that cause.”

Republican Gov.-elect Bill Lee also had nothing positive to say about it.

“The Republican Party has been very successful in recent years with establishing majorities, the governor’s spot, the congressional delegation, and I think they’ve been very successful under the current system,” Lee said Monday. “I would suggest we stay with that system.”

The proposal’s fate will likely be in the hands of the Legislature, where two top leaders want closed primaries discussed in the session that begins next month. Lawmakers in Tennessee need only a majority of members to override a governor’s veto.

Senate Speaker Randy McNally, an Oak Ridge Republican, said that if primaries are closed, lawmakers need to make sure it’s a seamless process, easy to administer and doesn’t cost the state or the party a lot.

“I think there might be a fear that if there’s more than one candidate in a primary, then the other party could end up voting for one that they like or one that’s the weaker of the two,” McNally said of the current system. “Sometimes it’s that, and sometimes it’s really the opposite. I don’t think that President Trump would’ve been elected had there been closed primaries in all the states.”

House Speaker nominee Glen Casada, a Franklin Republican, said the idea “has merit and is an issue that needs to be addressed,” saying he trusts the legislative system to research possible impacts.

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