Ohio Republicans propose two measures to close primary elections ahead of 2024 presidential race

The proposals would require primary voters to be previously affiliated with a party to participate in the nominating contest.

By: - June 28, 2023 4:55 am

A poll worker checks a voter’s identification during the Ohio primary election, May 3, 2022, at the Ascension Lutheran Church, Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Graham Stokes. Republish photo only with original story.)

Ohio lawmakers have filed two measures that would establish a closed primary system. The change would mean only voters who previously declared a party affiliation would be allowed to vote in partisan primary elections.

Unaffiliated voters make up the vast majority of the electorate according to the latest Secretary of State data. Ohio’s voter database currently shows 1.3 million registered Republicans, 1 million registered Democrats, and 5.7 million unaffiliated. Unaffiliated voters would not be able to choose when voting to cast a partisan primary ballot under the proposed changes.

One bill requires voters declare their party 30 days ahead of an election, while the other would require it by Dec. 31 of the prior year.

Open or closed?

General elections are wide open, allowing voters from any party, or no party, to back whichever candidates they choose. But primary elections are often a different animal.

In 15 states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, participating in the primary requires party affiliation. In six of those, however, state parties decide on a year-to-year basis whether to allow unaffiliated voters to participate. Another nine states use a system where unaffiliated voters are free to participate in the primary of their choice, but voters registered with another party can’t cross over.

Ohio’s current system is known as partially open. Voters only affiliate with a party when they select its ballot during a primary election. The voter is then a party member until they miss two years’ worth of primaries, or they select a different party’s ballot.

But there’s nothing to stop voters from crossing over. If you voted in the Democratic primary last year, you can vote in the current year’s Republican primary. All you have to do is request the GOP ballot.

State law allows poll workers to challenge voters on their party affiliation, but it’s rare. A secretary of state directive requires the challenging poll worker to have “personal knowledge” of the voter’s party. Even so, if the voter fills out a form attesting to their new party, they can vote.

Some argue this openness could give rise to voters from one party casting ballots in an opposing party’s contest to hurt that party’s chances in the general election. The practice goes by a handful of names — “crossover” or “strategic” voting, as well as the more colorful, “party raiding.” Critics contend allowing voters to cast ballots meant to undermine the party distorts the contest.

State Rep. Thomas Hall, R-Madison Twp. Official photo.

An “interesting conversation”

State Rep. Thomas Hall, R-Madison Township, is sponsoring the version setting the deadline for party declaration at 30 days prior to an election.

“I know there’s blue and red states that do this. It’s not just a Republican issue. It’s not just a Democrat issue,” Hall explained.

Hall described the changes as a worthwhile idea to chew on rather than addressing an immediate threat. He said most of his legislation starts from a personal story, “but I haven’t had an instance where I can point to, in my two primaries that I’ve had, where I can tell Democrats jumped over and influenced our election.”

“I’m kind of grateful that there’s two different bills,” he added. “Because I think that goes to the message that this is something that is worth taking into consideration. But at the same time, it’s not a hill that I hope to die on, you know? I think there’s so many other policy things that I’m working on that are just as important.”

By contrast, Rep. Gary Click, R-Vickery, sees voters crossing party lines as a much more pressing problem. Click and Rep. Jennifer Gross, R-West Chester, are co-sponsoring the bill which sets the deadline at the end of the prior year.

“In the modern era it feels like our elections have often become more of a game of high stakes chess rather than a constitutional venue for allowing citizens to select their elected leaders,” Click argued in a text message.

State Rep. Gary Click, R-Vickery. (Photo by Graham Stokes for Ohio Capital Journal. Republish photo only with original story.)

“Under our proposed legislation, citizens will maintain the flexibility to change their party designation to align with their values as they see fit,” he continued. “However, it will be more difficult to spoil the outcome of competitors simply because there is no contest in one’s own primary.”

How prevalent is “crossover” voting?

One of the foremost proponents of closing Ohio’s primaries is former GOP U.S. congressman Jim Renacci. He applauded the two House measures in a press release this month. “I personally think that December 31st bill is the best,” he said. “but I am sure there is a good compromise on the horizon.” In an Akron Beacon Journal op-ed this March, he argued the current system robs parties of the ability to select their own nominees.

“It’s time to act now and close Ohio’s primary ahead of the 2024 presidential election,” Renacci argued, “so that both Democrats and Republicans can nominate their best candidates without fear of the other party pressing their thumbs on the scales.”

He cited 2008’s “Operation Chaos,” one of the most well-known examples of party-raiding in recent memory. The idea, instigated by Rush Limbaugh, was for Republicans to vote in Democratic primaries to prolong the contest between Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama. The incident was highly publicized at the time, and thousands of Ohio voters crossed party lines.

Former U.S. Representative for Ohio’s 16th Congressional District Jim Renacci. (Photo by Graham Stokes. Republish photo only with original story.)

Even at the time, it was clear crossover votes didn’t sway Ohio’s outcome. But subsequent research casts doubt on Limbaugh’s broader impact as well. Political scientist Todd Donovan did find that Republican voters crossed over in several primary states as it became clear John McCain would be the GOP’s nominee. But, he argues, “if malicious crossover voting occurred in 2008, strategic Republicans had figured the scheme out before Limbaugh targeted the March 4th primaries.”

Donovan goes on to note it’s unclear how many of those voters were “hedging” and how many were “raiding.” In the former, he said, voters are sincerely voting for a candidate they want in the general election, while in the latter they’re trying to undermine a candidate or a party.

A voter’s motivation won’t change the final results, but political scientist Barbara Norrander contends it’s a crucial distinction to understanding crossover voting. Norrander has written extensively about primary elections and says, “most American voters vote ‘sincerely’ rather than ‘strategically.’” Simply put, voters usually back the candidate they like the most — even if that means they’re crossing party lines to do so.

“There is very little evidence that American voters engage in raiding behavior in primary elections,” Norrander said. “In addition, most “crossover voters” are independents who actually lean toward the party connected to the primary.”

Losing leaners

Norrander explained most independent voters are really “lean” voters who “generally prefer one party over the other and vote for that party’s candidates as frequently as do Americans who say they are a partisan.”

That presents an important complication for the two closed primary proposals.

Because both measures close out unaffiliated voters, only consistent, reliable voters will be able to weigh in on primaries. But political figures from both major parties have risen to prominence by energizing a more contingent pool of voters. The next Donald Trump or Barack Obama will likely have a difficult time winning Ohio if their universe of voters is the electorate that turned out in the previous midterm.

“It’s crazy you say that,” Hall said, explaining someone else raised the same conundrum earlier that day.

“I should say this, I respect Representative Gross, and Representative Click is like a brother to me — I just, I disagree with this December 31,” Hall explained. “I think that the last thing people are thinking about when they’re opening up their gifts on Christmas, or getting ready for New Year’s parties is their voting affiliation.”

He argued his deadline, 30 days prior, falls around the same time TV ads start running and people really begin paying attention. Still, Hall said he’d defer to the committee and hopes both measures can get hearings.

“I think that this is, again, just worth having the conversation to see where it ends up,” he said.

Follow OCJ Reporter Nick Evans on Twitter.


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Nick Evans
Nick Evans

Nick Evans has spent the past seven years reporting for NPR member stations in Florida and Ohio. He got his start in Tallahassee, covering issues like redistricting, same sex marriage and medical marijuana. Since arriving in Columbus in 2018, he has covered everything from city council to football. His work on Ohio politics and local policing have been featured numerous times on NPR.