Ohio House bill to close primaries gets first hearing

By: - October 4, 2023 4:55 am
A sample ballot. (Getty Images)

A sample ballot. (Getty Images)

An Ohio House bill establishing a closed primary system got its first hearing in committee this week. A Senate companion measure got its first hearing last week. The proposals require voters to affirmatively select their party at least 30 days before a primary election to cast partisan ballots.

Supporters argue the changes will prevent partisans from sabotaging their opponents’ primaries. There’s little indication however of that kind of party ‘raiding,’ and sponsors have yet to present evidence of it.

Detractors, meanwhile, question the necessity of ‘fixing’ a system that isn’t broken, and some contend the changes will suppress voting and lead to hyper-partisanship.

The pitch

Rep. Thomas Hall’s measure is one of two proposals that would close Ohio’s primary elections. The other, backed by Reps. Gary Click, R-Vickery and Jennifer Gross, R-West Chester, would make voters select their party by the end of the prior year.

In committee Tuesday, Hall argued his measure, “will provide the party members the opportunity to choose the best candidate that best represents them and their values, while also preventing non-party members the ability to manipulate an open primary nomination process for the benefit of the opposing party.”

Democratic House members repeatedly pressed Hall to explain the necessity of this measure. In a moment of levity, Rep. Dani Isaacsohn, D-Cincinnati, asked “what’s the harm” in the current system.

“Let’s say you wake up that morning,” Isaacsohn went on, “and you’re like, you know what? I’m a Republican today.”

“Hallelujah,” Chairman Bob Petersen, R-Sabina, interjected.

Hall said the impetus for the measure came from his constituents. They believe it would create a “stronger” primary system Hall said. As for examples of voters jumping party, he pointed to Secretary of State Frank LaRose with whom he drafted the bill. But in the press conference Hall referenced, LaRose did not provide evidence of a problem either.

“I’m sure that there’s statistics out there,” LaRose said of party raiding, “but it’s a concern that many people have.”

Hall defended the 30-day timeframe for selecting a party, noting it corresponds with the voter registration deadline.

“It’s right around when the elections upcoming,” he said, “people know there’s an election coming and know to update their party registration.”

Quibbles and pushback

Rep. Richard Brown, D-Canal Winchester, quoted a Washington Post op-ed that criticized closed primaries. Unaffiliated voters tend to be more centrist, the argument went, and keeping them out, only feeds polarization. Hall disagreed but asked for a copy of the article.

Rep. Michael Skindell, D-Lakewood, proposed a tweak. Other states, he argued, block voters registered with one party from using a different party’s ballot. But voters who remain unaffiliated can still choose the primary ballot of their choice on Election Day. Skindell suggested that change would discourage the raiding Hall referenced while “ensur(ing) that we look towards increased voter participation,” among unaffiliated voters.

Hall said he’s open to discussions about the bill but made no promises about changes.

Speaking after the hearing, Nazek Hapasha from the League of Women Voters explained her organization will be submitting testimony in opposition of the measure. She argued the measure disenfranchises voters.

“There are dozens of elections in which the person who won in the primary, from among state representatives and state senators, didn’t have an opponent in the general election,” she said. “So, it’s all the more important that people are able to participate in the primary no matter what political party they are.”

Rep. Hall and Sen. Michele Reynolds, R-Canal Winchester, who’s sponsoring a companion measure in the Senate, argue their bill gives voters an opportunity to declare their values by selecting a party. Hapasha doesn’t exactly disagree, but argued that shouldn’t lock voters out of a given election. After all, they’re paying for it.

“Our elections are not privately funded by the Republican Party and the Democratic Party,” she said. “These are these are statewide publicly funded elections in which anybody should be able to participate.”

She added that just as choosing to affiliate with a party is a political declaration, refusing to affiliate with a party is a declaration, too.

“Unaffiliated voters should be able to say: I’m not one or the other, but I still have a stake in this election and I want to vote,” she 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.