Major Parties Conduct State-by-State Effort to Limit Voter Participation
There is an ongoing lawsuit attempting to close Montana’s open primary system. This lawsuit is being joined by the Montana Republican Party. State Republicans support closing their primaries because they argue Democrats and other nonmembers have been influencing their elections for years.
"One example given during the state GOP’s meeting to make the case for joining the lawsuit was a vote in the state House of Representatives ... in which some Republicans supported an amendment to House procedural rules introduced by Democrats," IVN Editor-in-Chief Shawn Griffiths reports.
Idaho had open primaries until 2011, when they were found unconstitutional in federal court. (Idaho Republican Party v. Ysursa, 765 F. Supp. 2d 1266 (2011)) The state Legislature then passed a law implementing a closed primary system, allowing the parties to decide who can participate in the primary process.
“The party that leads that charge is often, in fact almost always, the majority party in the state,” Boise State Political Science Professor Gary Moncrief said. “In some states it’s the Democratic Party and the faction within the party that tends to lead that charge tends to be the more liberal faction. And in the Republican Party, if they’re the ones leading the charge, it tends to be the more conservative faction.”
"It doesn't leave Idaho's 11,168 registered Democrats with much to choose from," a local ABC affiliate reports. “On the Bonneville County ballot, most positions don’t even have a Democrat running.”
In 2013, the Democratic Party of Hawaii sued to overturn the state's open primary system. However, the party failed to provide evidence that open primaries violate the constitution or significantly burden the party's ability to choose its own candidates. (Democratic Party v. Nago, 982 F. Supp. 2d 1166 (2013)).
"The DPH would likely not be ‘severely’ burdened by not being able to reject persons who fully embrace its values. The possibility of crossover voters might make no difference." - District Court Judge Michael Seabright
In Utah, a compromise was adopted that created a direct primary that any voter could participate in, alongside a caucus. The Utah Republican Party brought a lawsuit challenging this law.
"We do not believe the state has the constitutional authority to tell a private organization how to select those that represent their belief system," said Utah Republican Party Chair James Evans.
“...imposing a candidate selection process on the Party that dilutes the primacy of its political platform and messaging in its chosen candidate selection process...violates the Party’s constitutional right to free association.” - Utah Republican Party, Utah Republican Party v. Herbert
South Carolina maintains an open primary system. In 2010, the state's Republican Party challenged the primary system in a lawsuit. However, the party dropped out of the suit before a decision was made.
“We’re glad to see the State Republican Party come to its senses, Locking out independent voters to control nominations sends the wrong message. I invite the State GOP to now join our coalition of interveners which is asking the Court to lay this reactionary boondoggle to rest,” said Jackie Salit, president of IndependentVoting.org.
The open primary in Mississippi became controversial in 2014 after a Republican U.S. Senate primary runoff between incumbent U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran and State Senator Chris McDaniel garnered national attention. McDaniel lost the race, but claimed his loss was the result of Democratic voters infiltrating the Republican primary.
Though crossover voting is technically illegal, due to voting requirements (proving the intent of the voter), it is essentially impossible to prove.
In the past few years, voices from both parties have pushed to close the primary. Currently, McDaniel is attempting to introduce a bill that would close the primaries, but claims leadership is blocking it.
“How could anyone in America today be truly politically independent if they have a brain or a heart?" Bruce Ash, RNC Standing Rules Committee Chairman for Arizona said. "If someone cannot make up their mind which side they are pulling for today, they probably lack a brain, a heart and can’t be trusted to cast a ballot intelligently.”
New Mexico currently has closed primaries. A lawsuit brought by an independent voter claims that the current primary system violates the New Mexico Constitution. A final ruling has not been made yet, but the judge requested the input of the Democratic and Republican parties before coming to a decision.
“These are public elections. All taxpayers pay for these elections and I find it astounding that the party would take a position to have the right to deny someone the right to vote in a publicly-funded election,” says attorney Ed Hollington.
“The attorney says the primary is an internal process and the current law protects the party’s right to freedom of association,” KRQE News reports.Alabama currently has open primaries, but the Alabama GOP is working to close them.
“Until such time that we enact legislation in Alabama to have a closed or semi-closed primary, we will continue to see Democrats ‘meddling’ in our primary,” said party chair Bill Armistead in a letter to GOP members.
The leader of the state Republican Party has tried for a few years to change the primary election law -- his efforts dating back to at least 2012.
“Republicans pushing for a closed primary want the taxpayers to keep covering that $3.9 million price tag,” AL.com reports.
In Ohio, independent voters have been working to open the state's primary elections and adopt a nonpartisan, top-two primary.
"Independent voters argue that closed primaries exclude a great portion of the voting population," IVN contributor Debbie Sharnak reports. "Instead of allowing for the most popular candidates to appear on the ballot for the general election, they appeal to the most partisan sectors of the population, exacerbating the polarization of American politics and contributing to the political deadlock in Washington today."
Tennessee in effect has open primaries, but technically a ballot can be challenged by a poll worker if he or she does not believe the voter actually supports the party, but there is no party registration so challenges are difficult to prove. Although it was recently defeated, Republicans within the state have considered closing the primaries several times, with one supporter of closed primaries going so far as to say open primaries “pervert the process.”
Virginia has open primaries and does not track voter affiliation. Republicans have made previous attempts to close the primaries, but did not succeed. The party has gone so far as choosing closed conventions to select party candidates in order to limit voter participation. Party leaders have even acknowledged that this prevents many voters (including active duty military) from having a say in the process.
"We have made it clear from the beginning that we were prepared to run and win in whichever method of nomination the state central committee decided was best for the party," said Noah Wall, a spokesman for 2013 Virginia gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli's political action committee.
State Del. Brenda Pogge (R-James City County) said every primary ‘amounts to an unfunded mandate on our localities."
About the Author
Current student at Cal Western Law School and San Diego State University in San Diego, California.