Bill to close Tennessee primaries advancing in House

Rep. Andy Holt (R-Dresden), left, is the sponsor of a bill seeking to close primary elections in Tennessee.

A bill seeking to require party registration in order to vote in Tennessee primaries is advancing the House. The bill sponsored by Rep. Andy Holt (R-Dresden) advanced on a voice vote in the Elections & Campaign Finance Subcommittee on Wednesday morning.

When Democrats sought to close primaries after soaring to new heights in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal of the mid-1970s, Republicans cried foul and the measure was defeated. This time, the roles are reversed, though the fate of this year’s measure remains uncertain.

Then-Gov. Ray Blanton and the Democratic State Executive Committee sought to cement their gains by imposing party registration rules for voting in primaries in the 1970s. Closing primaries, the argument went, would give the liberal wing of the party more sway by excluding Republicans and independents from influencing the nomination process.

Those efforts were thwarted by a coalition of Republicans and conservative Democrats from rural West Tennessee led by House Speaker Ned McWherter of Dresden and Senate Speaker John Wilder of Mason.

House Minority Leader Tom Jensen (R-Knoxville), who died last year year, said at the time Tennesseans had “made it clear they don’t want to be shackled with party registration laws.”

But times have changed. The Republican State Executive Committee in December recommended lawmakers enact party registration requirements in Tennessee.

Former Republican Gov. Bill Haslam called closing primaries “a silly proposal, ” arguing that if the change had been made earlier, it would have been much harder for Republicans to get to the position of power they’re in today. Gov. Bill Lee, who won the Republican nomination amid record turnout in last year’s  gubernatorial primary, was similarly dubious about the proposal, telling reporters that “the current system we have is working.”

Republicans today hold an even stronger position in state politics than Democrats did after Watergate. The GOP controls 73 of 99 seats in the state House and 28 of 33 in the state Senate, seven of nine seats in the U.S. House, and both U.S. Senate seats.

Under current state law, anyone can vote in a party primary if they are “a bona fide member of and affiliated with the political party.” The law also permits primary voting if “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.” The law has been interpreted to mean that seeking a party ballot is a declaration of allegiance.

In practice, many Tennesseans choose to vote in whichever primary is more compelling, meaning their allegiance and affiliation may last for as little as a single election.

Supporters of closed primaries argue that under the current system, crossover voters could help a weaker candidate win the nomination, who would then have a harder time prevailing in the general election. Another refrain is that open primaries give moderate candidates a better chance of winning primaries.

Nine states have closed primary systems, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Another seven have what the organization calls “partially closed” systems in which parties can choose whether to allow independent or voters registered with other parties to participate in primaries on a case-by-case basis.

NCSL counts Tennessee among six states with “partially open” primaries, where affiliation can be changed from election to election. Another 24 states are either fully open or allow independent voters to participate in the primary of their preference.


41 Responses to Bill to close Tennessee primaries advancing in House

  • Ann Lamb says:

    Which 9 states have closed primary systems? Which 7 have “partially closed” primaries? That information is needed to properly assess the success of such systems.

  • Donna Locke says:

    I’m independent and don’t care if they do this, but I think having runoffs is more important, and I doubt they want that. I hope to see more independents on general ballots.

  • David Thomas says:

    If Tennessee closes primaries, then each party should be responsible for paying for their own primary! I do not want to subsidise either party with my tax dollars!

  • Susan says:

    The TEA (school union) sends letters to Republican legislators threatening them that they are instructing their union members that they can vote in the R primaries against an R legislator regardless that they self identify as a Democrat. Multiple instances where these Leftest unions are sending mailers for R primaries supporting R candidates to their D members. If the unions are going to play nasty what exactly do you expect legislators to do?

    • Donna Locke says:

      I agree with that, Susan. We had a leader in the Democratic Party here in Maury County voting in one or more Republican primaries.

      • Donna Locke says:

        Not just a leader. The HEAD of the county Democrat Party. I should emphasize that.

        • Susan says:

          In Williamson County multiple Democrats running for office on the Democrat primary ballot voted instead in the Republican primary. The county election commission sent it to the district attorney who passed it down the chain and everybody yawned. When feckless bureaucrats refuse to uphold the law it shouldn’t surprise anyone that there is a movement to write the law in a way that is harder to ignore.

          • Bob says:

            In fact the feckless beauracrat said, “in Tennessee you could be a “bone fide Democrat” and a “bone fide Republican” at the same time” and that is why he didn’t prosecute the Democrat candidate voting in her own opponent’s Republican Primary. This was despite the law that said the Democrat candidate had to be declared a “bone fide” Democrat by the Democrat Party. I’m pretty sure that this was not the legislative intent, but that is just me.

          • Bob says:

            Additionally, the margin of victory in six Williamson County Republican races was less the the number of voters that voted int Democrat Presidential Primary in 2016. So Bernie and Hilliary supporters decided who were the Republican Primary nominees.

  • Stuart I. Anderson says:

    “. . .they don’t want to be shackled by party registration laws” indeed, we are living in a time when leftists don’t want to be shackled by citizenship laws. Ah, if I only was more assertive in my youth as a member of Phi Sigma Kappa I should have presented myself at the Sigma Chi house and demanded that I be able to sit in on their meetings and vote explaining that I didn’t want to be “shackled” by fraternity membership rules. Sheer lunacy, but that’s the embarrassing mutterings we get from centrist Republicans who unfortunately control the Party.

    I am sure the forces of the Chamber of Commerce who the Republican Party really represents will sweep in at the last minute and keep the path wide open for leftist activists to vote for the Chamber’s centrist friends in the Republican Party. As for me, as a conservative, I believe the Chamber of Commerce should also pay for the Republican Party that represents it so well as my political contributions adhere to the rule “MILLIONS FOR CONSERVATIVE CANDIDATES, NOT A PENNY FOR THE REPUBLICAN PARTY”!

    • Donna Locke says:

      Heck yeah, Stuart, why should there be any lines of demarcation anywhere? We’ve already seen lines erased between citizens and noncitizens.

  • Stuart I. Anderson says:

    Oh, I almost forgot, may I point out to my fellow conservatives who foolishly voted for “No Record Candidate” Bill Lee that the Governor has once again allied himself with the centrist establishment on yet another issue confronting this state. I suspect that I will have many occasions to point out how foolish it was for conservatives to vote for a “No Record Candidate” like Lee as we approach the 2020 elections and our open Senate seat with the hope that they resolve not to do that sort of thing again.

    • Silence Dogood says:

      Most Conservatives did not vote for Bill Lee in the Primaries, Stuart. Over 180,000 Conservatives voted for Diane Black (& Mae Beavers). The Republicans won the Primary. Not the Conservatives. We were outnumbered.

  • James White says:

    It would be nice to Post the BILL NUMBER when there is an article about a bill…..
    And what will be the COST of this monstrosity? I remember in the previous cycle, Fayette county just had to have a Republican Primary and the cost was so not justified.

    • Erik Schelzig says:

      There is a link in the second sentence of the story. Click on it, and you shall see the bill.

      • James White says:

        Thanks, I see it now, it is very lite …! 🙂

        • JAMES B GARRETT says:

          There are two bills dealing with essentially the same subject matter – but in different ways. Representative Holt’s bill is HB 1373 / SB 1500 by Sen. Hensley. Representative Rudd has a bill – HB 1398 / SB 1303 by Sen. Pody. Senator Pody’s bill is similar to the one he carried in 2018 which was introduced by then Sen. Beavers in the 110th General Assembly.

  • William Upton says:

    I like the current system. As an Independent I don’t want to have to register with a party just to vote in the primary. I like being able to mess with whatever party I choose. I can’t pick a party because they are both full of crap at least half the time.

    • Stuart I. Anderson says:

      I don’t believe we should have a system that encourages people to “. . .mess with whatever party [they] choose.” Rather, we should have a system that encourages voters to have a coherent philosophy of government which they follow election after election – a Democrat if you are a leftist, a Republican if you are on the Right.

      While I agree with you William that half of Republican pols “. . .are full of crap at least half of the time” the Democrats are by and large serious about making this country a leftist dystopia, they only differ about the speed in which they would like this to happen. Assuming that you are a serious voter, after deciding whether you are a man of the Left or Right, there is important work for you to do in choosing those candidates who are not “full of crap” in either party’s primary that contains candidates that reflect your political philosophy. Closed primaries will encourage you and like minded voters of this state to be much more coherent voters.

  • John W. Niven Jr says:

    Mr. Upton,
    You’re OK because independent candidates don’t have primaries to run in. They only run in the general election.

  • Perry Aubric says:

    I am all for party registration, and have been for decades. Only Republicans should nominate Republican candidates, and only Democrats should nominate Democrats. And if there are enough Greens or Libertarians in the state to merit a primary, they should have one of their own. All state and federal elections should have closed primaries. If you are not a member of a party, you really should not vote in its primary. Our state law theoretically prohibits that now, but it’s virtually unenforceable.

    Judges, city officials, and county officials should all run on a non-partisan ballot.

    No problem with the parties paying for any costs associated with the primary elections. But if they were held on the same day as county general elections, there would be no significant costs involved.

    No one should be allowed to hold more than one elected office at any one time.

    General elections should have a runoff, and as quickly as possible, maybe two weeks. Some jurisdictions require a runoff if no one gets 50% + 1; some set that at 40% + 1 for the top vote-getter. Either way would work, I guess. 50% +1 seems right, but there was a Metro election once where the top vote getter got 48% and no one else got more than 20%. Seems like a waste for a runoff in that situation. Perhaps a provision for a second-place concession, voiding the need for a runoff.

    We also need certifiable paper ballots for a backup and for recount purposes. How do we know for sure that the electronic machine has registered our votes as we cast them? Some hacker or some corrupt election official might monkey with a machine, and we wouldn’t have any way to know it. I am more afraid of that kind of voter fraud than I am of some imposter walking in an voting on election day.

  • benton temple says:

    Yes, let’s stop the system that has propelled Republicans to supermajority status. Makes sense.

    • Stuart I. Anderson says:

      Let’s see if I have this right. In the wonderland of Benton the Democrats who pile into the Republican primary to vote against conservative candidates in favor of the Chamber of Commerce’s favorites become so enamored with their choice of pabulum like centrist Republicans that by the time the General Election rolls around they forget their leftist philosophy that drives them to be a Democrat so instead of voting Democrat they simply vote for the pabulum like Republican again because of. . .momentum (?), inertia (?), a sudden misplaced sense of loyalty (?). . . . which yield Republican supermajorities. Come on Benton, stop kidding around!

  • Susan E Gingrich says:

    I wish there was more emphasis in TN to get legal citizens to register and vote. We had closed primaries in PA and it worked fine. There were also election dates easier to understand than TN’s One spring date for all levels of governments’ primaries, including school boards, and one date in November for general elections. Easier to manage, monitor and get voter turnout. Of course, I realize some TN incumbents may prefer less voting! #Patriots Reborn

  • William Upton says:

    Well I know this isn’t going to be a popular opinion, but, even as an Independent I am going to have to vote for somebody and I want to have some say in who will be running. There are no independent primaries and rarely is there an Independent candidate so I have to vote for either a Democrat or Republican. Maybe I’m enthused about a Republican primary so I want have a say in that primary. In a year like this maybe there is an incumbent, so I would like to vote in the Democrat primary. Just seems reasonable to me.

    • Stuart I. Anderson says:

      Yea William I know what you mean. There were some independents I knew in college who were really involved with the Greek system but never joined a fraternity. They had many Greek friends so they could be found at fraternity parties all the time so when heavily contested fraternity elections came around they often had pretty strong opinions as to who should get elected to various offices at various times.

      The shame of it all in retrospect is that they didn’t know William Upton. They surely “. . .want[ed] to have some say in (sic) who will be running” and who will get elected. After all they did enjoy those parties. Why armed with your logic and assertiveness there’s no telling how many fraternities would let them into their meetings to vote despite the fact that they contributed absolutely nothing and had no allegiance to the organizations. Riiiiight!

      • MarLE says:

        Stuart….the governance of the nation is a bit different than a fraternity system. Those independents you want to keep from voting in a primary ARE TAXPAYERS and are governed by one or the other of the primary winners. Did peripheral college frat-party-goers pay dues and was their college life dictated by whom the frat elected as its president?


    Assuming you are a registered voter at the time this legislation becomes law (if it does) the Independent voter will not see much difference the first time they vote in a primary. [There is no time limit on when that first primary can occur – it may be the very next primary that comes along or several years later but it is the first primary they vote in after the effective date.] They will go to the polling location, show their identification and request the ballot of their choice – either Democrat, Republican or General only. Then they will go vote. Same procedure as always. This is where the difference comes into play. The Election Commission takes that ballot choice and records it in the voters permanent record so that the second time they, the voter, goes to vote in a primary the choice of ballot is already made. The voter does have the option between those two primaries or between any two primaries of visiting the election commission and changing their permanent record back to an unaffiliated voter or to the other party, which ever they choose. In accordance with current law they can make changes at any time not within 30 days of the start of the primary. After the law becomes effective or after the voter has voted in that first primary after the effective date whatever is recorded on that permanent record within that 30 day window will dictate the ballot, if any, they receive at the primary.

    • William Upton says:

      And every few years I have to go and change my party affiliation to the one who’s primary I want to vote in. Just a lot of extra work for me and the bureaucrats. I still won’t be committed to either party.

  • June landrum says:

    Have no fear it will stay the same.

  • Meryl Rice says:

    In Hardeman County we have had a problem for many years of Republicans voting in the Democratic Primary. In fact we have had Republican election commissioners vote in the Democratic Primary as well as Republican candidates. I never thought I would agree with Andy Holt on anything, but I agree with closed primaries.

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  • Rob says:

    Absolute power corrupts. We now see TN Republicans like controlling our lives the same as Democrats

    • William Upton says:

      Actually I do contribute to whichever party I think is on the right track at any given time. I just won’t commit to either.

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