The Great Falls Tribune reported Friday that Montana Republicans filed an appeal with the Supreme Court of the United States to close the June 7 primary to registered party members only. IVN News has long followed efforts by the Republican and Democratic parties to close their primaries and predicted this would happen in early 2015.
The Montana GOP’s State Central Committee joined the lawsuit challenging Montana’s open primary system in January 2015. Under the current system, voters are able to choose which party ballot they want to vote on when they participate in primary elections and are not required to declare party affiliation when they register to vote.
The plaintiffs argue that the Republican Party’s constitutional right of association is being violated because non-Republican voters “cross over” and try to influence the outcome in legislative districts. However, U.S. District Judge Brian Morris ruled in December that there were too many unproven claims by the plaintiffs to issue an injunction that would close the June primaries.
The justices on the Supreme Court, with one seat vacant, will now decide whether or not they will take up the petition. On the flip side of the legal battle, the Independent Voter Project filed a petition before the high court in July 2015 to hear a case challenging closed primary elections in New Jersey. The high court, however, has yet to agree to take up the case.
Plaintiffs in the New Jersey case argue that not only do closed primaries violate the individual voter’s right to non-association, but their right to equal consideration and protection under the Fourteenth Amendment by denying all voters an equal say in elections.
Montana is not an isolated case, nor is it solely the Republican Party attempting to close primary elections. In Hawaii, for instance, the Democratic Party attempted and failed to have the state’s open primary system struck down on the grounds that it violated the party’s associational right guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution.
Lawyers for the Republican and Democratic parties — and even third parties — have tried to close primary elections across the country, including in Washington state, Virginia, South Carolina, California, and Idaho. So far, of these cases, only the Republican Party of Idaho has succeeded in completely overturning the state’s open primary laws.
The rise in these lawsuits comes at a time when the political landscape in the nation continues to shift — a shift that is not going in either party’s favor. The number of voters who self-identify as independent of the Republican and Democratic parties is at an all-time high and independent voter registration continues to climb.
At stake in these cases is not simply the fundamental voting rights of independent voters, but ALL voters. If taxpayer-funded primaries are an integral stage of the election process — which the Supreme Court has previously ruled they are — should all voters then be allowed equal access to the voting franchise? Whom do elections ultimately serve, people or private political parties?