Tennessee GOP Votes To Close Primaries

By Laura Baigert  |   Tennessee Star

FRANKLIN, Tennessee – The State Executive Committee (SEC) of the Tennessee Republican Party voted overwhelmingly at its organizational meeting to require party registration in order to vote in a party’s primary election, more commonly known as closing the primaries.

The SEC has a potential of 66 seats consisting of one committeeman and one committeewoman for each of Tennessee’s 33 Senate districts.

In a roll call vote, there were 45 votes in favor of closing the primaries, 14 for the primaries to remain open and one abstention. Two SEC members were absent with no proxy present, and four seats are currently vacant.

The resolution will be provided to the Tennessee General Assembly with the expectation of getting a bill passed by the Republican-controlled Senate and House to address voter registration during the upcoming legislative session which will begin in January, thereby putting an end to the perceived finger-pointing as to whether it is the SEC or legislature that must close the primaries.

A press release issued shortly after the vote and meeting adjournment on Saturday titled “TNGOP Passes Election Resolutions,” stated that the Tennessee Republican Party’s State Executive Committee voted to approve a resolution that asks the 111th General Assembly “to include a question regarding political party affiliation on Tennessee voter registration forms as well as requiring party registration in order to vote in a party’s primary election.”

Specifically, the resolution passed by the SEC to address Tennessee voter registration deals with two sections of Tennessee Code Annotated (TCA).

The first, TCA 2-2-116, relates to the voter registration form such that it would include a question regarding the political affiliation to a recognized statewide party in order to register to vote.

The second, TCA 2-7-117(b)(1), would specify that an individual must be a registered member of a political party in order to participate in that recognized statewide party’s primary election.

The resolution requesting the 111th Tennessee General Assembly to address the issue of “cross-over” voting in Tennessee’s primary elections introduces the proposed changes to Tennessee’s election laws by stating, “The current process laid out in TCA to prevent individuals who are not bona fide members of a political party does not adequately address the problem.”

Dozens of grassroots team members included Robert Verell, who conducted data analysis, appears with Norman Bobo and Jim Garrett.

While current TCA specifies that a voter be a “bona fide member of and affiliated with the political party in whose primary the voter seeks to vote,” it does not define bona fide and has no practical method for ensuring that the voter is a bona fide member of the political party in which primary they are voting.

The resolution concludes, “Primary elections are set in order for members of a recognized statewide political party to nominate candidates for public office, and therefore these elections should be secured and limited to only registered members of that statewide party.”

An additional resolution addressed offices for which candidates are chosen in primaries so that it would add “County Constitutional Officers” to TCA 2-13-202 which currently lists governor, members of the general assembly, United States senator and members of the United States House of a Representatives for which the statewide political parties shall nominate their candidates.

Specifically, county officers that the Constitution of the State of Tennessee prescribes be elected every four years are a legislative body, county executive, sheriff, trustee, register, county clerk and assessor of property.

As it stands, a recognized political party must call for the nomination of candidates via a primary election 180 days prior to the filing deadline for that office. If there is no established party in that county, it is impossible for a primary for that political party to be called and candidates to run on the political party’s primary ballot.

The consequence of such a change to the law would be that it would eliminate nominating conventions, replaced by primaries statewide.

Prior to the resolutions being voted on by the full body of the SEC, they were discussed by the Communications Committee, one of four committees to which members were assigned by Chairman Scott Golden based on member requests and his assessment as to their skillsets.

In the breakout session of the Communications Committee, state party Executive Director Michael Sullivan reviewed the election resolutions. In discussing the addition of county constitutional officers for automatic inclusion in primaries, he promoted the fact that the state would then bear the cost of primary. Under the current law when primaries are called for, there can be opposition from the local election commissions due to the associated costs, Sullivan advised.

Communications Committee member Angie McClanahan (District 28) requested that, when voted on by the full body, the resolution to close primaries be presented prior to the primary for county constitutional officers.

Newly-elected SEC member Joanne Davis (District 16) recognized she was in the minority of the Communications Committee as she expressed concern for open primaries in the breakout session, saying that most of the cross-over voters in her seven rural counties “are with us” but wouldn’t put it on paper.

Rebecca Griffey (District 24), also a new SEC member representing rural counties, made the case that she ran and won on a platform of closing the primaries.

The Communications Committee as a whole recommended that the resolutions proceed to the full body of the SEC.

As Executive Director Sullivan stepped up to present the Tennessee Voter Registration, or “closed primary” resolution to the full body, he was met with applause as he started with, “This is what you guys have been waiting for.”

Sullivan could have just as well been speaking to the numerous onlookers who were part of a grassroots effort to see this particular resolution to fruition. Organized months ago, several dozen engaged citizens and SEC members launched a comprehensive and concerted effort to close the primaries. The team worked with county party chairs to pass resolutions encouraging their SEC representatives to vote for the measure and contacted SEC members individually to whip votes.

While both would give credit to the team, in large part it was lead by Norman Bobo of Williamson County and Jim Garrett of Davidson County. In what they say could be the first study of its kind, an analysis of voting records for nine state-level elections revealed 14.2 percent of voters voted in at least one Republican and one Democrat primary. While that mixed voting is more than enough to swing many primary elections, the case gets stronger when looking at county level percentages which range from a low of 7.6 percent in Fayette County to the high of nearly 32 percent in Perry County.

While it was obvious as the roll call vote was being taken, the vote tally of 45 to 14 was met with resounding applause by the SEC members and onlookers alike.

When the resolution to add county constitutional officers to the primary came up, which by its nature eliminates nominating conventions, Randy Ellis (District 12) who voted for keeping open primaries, argued against the additional offices to be chosen in primaries. Ellis made his case that the decision should be left to the counties.

Likewise, Rebecca Griffey who disagreed with the resolution for several reasons largely related to the elimination of nominating conventions and their cost-effectiveness, concluded her statements by calling for the issue to be tabled, which ends all discussion and further action.

By voice vote, the SEC membership agreed to table the resolution.

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