Primaries

GOP lawmakers want to close ‘open’ primaries

Proposal would let only party members vote

gnsmith@thestate.com March 8, 2012 

Independents and Democrats could not vote in South Carolina’s high-profile, first-in-the-South Republican presidential primary if some GOP lawmakers get their way.

Those lawmakers moved a proposal through a House committee Wednesday to “close” primaries to voters who are not members of the political party – Republican or Democratic – holding the primary.

Currently, any registered S.C. voter can cast a ballot in one primary for each election without having to say whether they are a Republican, Democrat, independent or a member of any other political party. Under the proposal advanced Wednesday, voters would be required to register by political party before casting a ballot in any primary.

The bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Garry Smith, R-Greenville, said 28 other states already require some level of party registration, allowing members of political parties –- not outsiders – to control their nominees.

“Primaries allow a party to choose who they want to represent them in the general election,” Smith said. “They should have some say in who is allowed to vote in their primaries.”

Under a pending amendment to the bill, each of the state’s nine political parties could choose whether to restrict who can vote in their primaries.

The S.C. Republican Party supports Smith’s proposal but wants it tweaked to allow independents to vote in any primary they choose to cast a ballot in.

The intent of the bill is to block Democrats from voting in Republican primaries and vice versa, said Chad Connelly, chairman of the S.C. GOP. “A lot of folks in the party have been frustrated that we’ve had cross-over voters.”

But Dick Harpootlian, chairman of the S.C. Democratic Party, says “closed primaries” are bad idea.

“A majority of voters in this state consider themselves independents,” Harpootlian said. “The solid Ds and solid Rs probably make up less than half the vote. The rest would tell you that they vote one way some of the time and the other the rest of the time. This restriction would discourage them from participating.”

State Rep. Bakari Sellers, D-Bamberg, who cast the sole vote against the bill Wednesday in a House subcommittee, agreed. He added voter crossover – where Democrats vote in Republican primaries and vice versa – is not an issue in the state.

“Believe me. Democrats did not go and vote for Newt Gingrich,” Sellers said. “We let all of you go vote for Newt Gingrich.”

According to exit polling, 71 percent of the voters in the state’s January GOP presidential primary said they were Republicans, 25 percent said they were independents and 4 percent said they were Democrats.

Similarly, exit polling from 2008 showed very few Democrats voted in that year’s GOP primary – only 2 percent – and only slightly more Republicans voted in the Democratic primary – 4 percent. However, independents made up about 20 percent of the voters in both party’s 2008 presidential primaries.

The state GOP created its “first-in-the-South” presidential primary in the 1980s, leaving it open in hopes of attracting disaffected Democrats and independents into supporting the Republican Party and its candidates. At the time, Democrats controlled the state. Now, however, Republicans control the state.

The bill now moves to full House Judiciary Committee for consideration.

Reach Smith at (803) 771-8658.

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