Politics & Government

March 31, 2011

Judge keeps primary voting open

A federal judge tossed out a lawsuit by Republicans Wednesday who wanted South Carolina to begin requiring voters to register with a party before voting in a primary.

A federal judge tossed out a lawsuit by Republicans Wednesday who wanted South Carolina to begin requiring voters to register with a party before voting in a primary.

If Republicans don’t want outsiders to help choose their nominees, they have other options, like picking candidates at a party convention or filling out petitions to get them on the ballot, U.S. District Judge Michelle Childs ruled.

The decision reverberates nationally.

South Carolina’s first-in-the-South Republican presidential primary, which has been won by the party’s eventual nominee in each election since 1980, is open to any registered voter in the state, forcing candidates to moderate their message to a wider audience. The Democratic contest is also open.

“It’s a great day for independents. It’s a great day for all voters in South Carolina,” said lawyer Harry Kresky, who argued the case for IndependentVoting.org. “The primary confirms a great deal of legitimacy on a candidate.”

IndependentVoting.org. joined with the state, Tea Party members and black lawmakers in fighting the lawsuit.

Republicans are discussing whether to appeal the ruling, said S.C. GOP executive director Joel Sawyer.

“We are disappointed in the judge’s ruling. We believe the constitution is solidly on our side in this case,” Sawyer said.

Republicans also plan to ask legislators to pass a law allowing voters in the state to register to vote by party, which likely would open the door to closing primaries to only party members.

In arguments before the judge earlier this month in Greenville, Republicans said 25 other states have closed primaries and South Carolina’s current laws break the party’s constitutional rights to associate with the people they choose.

They also said the requirement that 75 percent of convention members have to approve picking the nominee at a convention is an unfair hurdle because many churches and corporations only need a simple majority to get things done.

Childs ruled political parties are different because they are allowed access to elections and ballots denied to private organizations.

The state argued that the case wasn’t just about political parties choosing whom they want to associate with — it also involves voters deciding whether they want to associate with parties. Also, choosing whether to vote in the Democratic or Republican primary is in a way choosing to align with a party, government lawyers argued.

Allowing independent voters to have a voice in primary elections is especially critical in a heavily Republican state like South Carolina, Kresky said.

“That’s where the effective decision is made about who is going to be the representative, except in a few competitive districts,” he said.

In 2008, more than half of the state’s 46 Senate seats and two-thirds of the 124 House seats had only one candidate in the general election.

In another GOP development Wednesday, South Carolina now will be the site of the nation’s first Republican presidential debate in the 2012 contest.

The Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation said Wednesday too few candidates had committed to a May 2 debate in California, held along with NBC News and Politico. That event is being shifted to Sept. 14.

That makes a May 5 GOP event in Greenville the first in the 2012 debate season.

Many Republican contenders have yet to formally commit to enter the presidential race. Some potential candidates have said they will not reveal decisions before this summer.

Still, Sawyer said candidates have informally committed to the Fox News debate in Greenville. He said there are no plans to delay that event.

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