published Monday, March 10th, 2014

Tennessee General Assembly eyes legislation to require affirmation of alignment from primary voters

The Tennessee State Capitol in Nashville.
The Tennessee State Capitol in Nashville.
Photo by The Tennessean /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

The Tennessee General Assembly is considering a bill that would require voters in partisan primaries to declare that the party they are voting for "most closely represents [their] values and beliefs."

"What this is meant to do is discourage those in opposing parties to cross over when their intent is to maliciously malign the election of either primary party," said the bill's sponsor, Rep. Joe Carr, R-Lascassas, as the House Local Government Subcommittee discussed the legislation.

The bill, HB 1833, passed out of the subcommittee on a voice vote and is scheduled to be heard in the full Local Government Committee on Tuesday. The Senate version, SB 2180, hasn't seen any movement yet but is also scheduled for a Tuesday hearing in the Senate State and Local Government Committee.

Carr is challenging Lamar Alexander for his U.S. Senate seat in this year's Republican primary.

In the subcommittee, Carr explained that while nothing can be done to prevent crossover voting "conclusively," his bill would at least make voters certify they're casting ballots for the party that reflects their principles.

But Carr said that he "can't account" for people who may sign the statement and don't really mean it.

"People sign things they don't mean all the time," Carr said.

While the bill's sponsors claim this will help to prevent tampering in the electoral process through "malicious" crossover voting, the heads of Tennessee's major political parties oppose the measure and worry that it will hurt voter outreach.

"Anything that makes it harder for Tennesseans to exercise their constitutional right to vote is wrong-headed, unpatriotic and antithetical to Tennessean and American values," Roy Herron, chairman of the state Democratic Party and a former state senator, said in a statement.

Herron added that whether local government candidates are "blue to the bone" or choose to shun partisan identification, that's a decision for individual Tennesseans to make.

State Republican Party Chairman Chris Devaney worries that such a requirement could hurt his party's "Red to the Roots" program, which is intended to encourage partisan primaries for local government elections.

"A big reason why the Republican Party has been successful in Tennessee is because we have an open primary," Devaney said. "Because we're allowing more people to be part of our process; we're not closing it off to just a certain few."

Devaney said that in party polling, 33 to 38 percent of respondents identify as independents. He's concerned making voters sign loyalty statements might discourage independents from voting for the GOP.

"We've had a lot of success at the Republican Party with the current electoral process we have, and I don't think we need to change it," Devaney said.

Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville, the sponsor of the Senate version, said it's "sort of funny" for Devaney to oppose the legislation even as he attempts to bring partisan politics to local elections.

"If he really believes that asking someone to say, hey, my values are similar to the Republican Party -- if he's afraid of that, then what does he want to have partisan elections for at all?" Campfield said.

Campfield added that the state GOP executive committee has not made a statement on his bill. And, although Devaney said he believes talk of Democratic crossover in Republican primaries is "a lot of misinformation," Campfield said he's heard talk of "people who were literally Democrat state reps" voting in the next GOP primary to try and beat the person who beat them.

"I think it would be easier to just to say, hey, listen, I do support these things, or I don't support these things," Campfield said. "If you do support them, great, we welcome you, we're [a] big tent.

"But if you don't support them, if you really don't have the best interest of the party at heart, what are you doing over there? Why are you voting in that primary, other than to try and cause havoc?"

Contact staff writer Alex Harris at aharris@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592.

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