Local GOP committee members split votes on closing primaries

Published 9:13 am Tuesday, February 10, 2015

A proposal to change how primary elections operate in Tennessee split local party representatives and ultimately failed to garner enough support to pass during a meeting of the Executive Committee of the Tennessee Republican Party.
During a special called meeting of the committee, members debated requesting a change to state law that would have required voters to register in a specific political party in order to vote in primary elections for that party.
Tennessee Republican Party Executive Committeeman Kent Harris voted in favor of changes to the process, while Tennessee Republican Party Executive Committeewoman Sara Sellers voted to leave the process as is. Both Harris and Sellers represent Carter County as part of their district for the committee.
Harris was one of 16 members to request the special called meeting, which was held in Nashville Saturday.
If the measure had passed by the committee and subsequently the state, it would have meant voters would have to register with political parties before casting ballots in primary elections, and they could vote only for candidates identifying with the same party.
In other words, only registered Republicans could vote in Republican primaries, and only registered Democrats could vote in Democratic primaries.
The measure came to a vote after about two hours of debate, and once the votes were counted, 29 members of the committee supported the change while 37 cast votes to leave the process as is.
“It was a close vote,” Harris said. “We had a lot of good debate and a lot of good comments.”
A lot of the debate centered around enforcement of the law and the fact election law already provides provisions for who can or cannot vote in a primary election, Harris said.
“That was some of (the members’) argument — that we already have a law on the books,” he said. “But the current law is so confusing and hard to enforce. My argument is it is nearly impossible to enforce the law we have now.”
According to current state law, a voter is eligible to vote in a primary election if “the voter is a bona fide member of and affiliated with the political party in whose primary the voter seeks to vote; or at the time the voter seeks to vote, the voter declares allegiance to the political party in whose primary the voter seeks to vote and states that the voter intends to affiliate with that party.”
“It leaves so much up to the local election workers,” Harris said. “I think it’s unfair to leave it up to someone working the election to challenge somebody and be the bad guy.”
Part of the reason Harris supported the proposal, he said, is because it would help to prevent problems in the primary process caused by “cross-over votes,” which could affect which candidates receive the party’s nomination.
“You want to pick the strongest candidate for the party,” Harris said. “By allowing people to vote in the primary of a party that they are not really affiliated with, you could end up with a weak candidate or a candidate that really does not represent the ideals of that party.”
“I think it can cause problems, but that is just my opinion,” he added.
While the Executive Committee voted to leave the process alone, the subject is not finished, Harris said.
“I think we will now have some debate on the way the law is actually written,” he said, adding the committee will work to find the best ways to educate and inform the public and election workers on what the law actually requires.
Sara Sellers could not be reached for comment Monday.

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