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Front Page - Friday, December 21, 2018

Rogers column: Closed primaries are actually a pretty good idea

Generally speaking, I can sum up my political leanings by pointing to Republicans and saying I’m against what they’re for, and for what they’re against.


The Tennessee Republican Executive Committee recently called on the Legislature to require party registration for voters who want to participate in primaries.

“We believe this is a step in the right direction to ensure our Republican nominees are selected by Republicans and not effected by the malicious intent of some Democrats,” says Scott Golden, the state Republican chairman.

First up: The editor in me applauds what I believe is a rare correct usage of “effect” as a verb.

Second: I agree with the resolution.

In doing so, I find myself in opposition to the official state Democratic line: “No Tennessean should be required to join a political party in order to exercise their constitutional right to vote, including independent voters,” says Mary Mancini, state Democratic chairwoman.

Some high-ranking Republicans are also ag’in it, including Gov. Bill Haslam, who said, “If you’re a Republican, I think it’s a silly proposal.”

Randy McNally, the State Senate speaker, allows that the notion might be worth talking about. But he adds that “I don’t think that President Trump would’ve been elected if there had been closed primaries in all the states,” reasoning that Trump benefited in the 2016 primaries from the votes of many people not formally associated with the Republican Party.

It’s tempting to argue that’s reason enough to be for closed primaries, but I won’t go there.

By far the most vehement opponent of closed primaries I came across is Roy Exum.

“This sounds a lot like what they do in Russia!” he wrote on Chattanoogan.com.

“To bar any registered voter from voting in a primary exactly as they please – Republican or Democrat – should incur the wrath of our Department of Justice and whoever sponsors such a terrible idea should do 11/29 in a Federal prison. I really mean it.”

(Interesting guy, Mr. Exum. A former executive and sports editor for The Chattanooga News-Free Press, he seems regularly to get into a lather or all misty-eyed, depending on topic. I would suggest that his understanding of election law, at the least, is wanting.)

As it happens, I just spent 20 years in a state with a closed primary, and I can assure Mr. Exum that it’s neither illegal nor un-American.

Voters in my previous state can choose to register with any number of parties: Democratic, Republican, Conservative, Green, Working Families, Independence, Women’s Equality, or “other.” They can also choose not to enroll in any party.

And while it’s true that a person not registered as a party member cannot vote in that party’s primary, there’s no constitutional issue. A primary, after all, doesn’t place someone in office. It’s a means to select a party’s candidate. And it seems to me that Republicans ought to select Republicans, Democrats ought to select Democrats, Greens select Greens and so on.

Nine states have closed primaries; 15 have open. The remainder use one variation or another between those two. Tennessee’s is considered partially open.

It can get rather complicated. But the bottom line is, there’s no one right way. And here’s something else to chew on: The Constitution doesn’t explicitly guarantee a right to vote.

By the way, in other resolutions, the Republican committee also called for the Legislature to:

• Increase the number of signatures required to run for public office to be reflective of the level of the office being sought. (The requirement now, for most offices, is a measly 25.)

• Require a special election to be called for public offices in the case of a vacancy within 45 days of the general election.

Both of which also sound reasonable to me. Somebody please check the Hell forecast for frost warnings.

Joe Rogers is a former writer for The Tennessean and editor for The New York Times. He is retired and living in Nashville. He can be reached at jrogink@gmail.com.