Love him or hate him, there is one thing Republican presidential front-runner Donald J. Trump has done this election season: increased voter turnout for Republicans by leaps and bounds.
According to a study from the Pew Research Center, through the first 12 primaries of 2016, combined Republican turnout has been 17.3 percent of eligible voters — the highest of any year since at least 1980. In Alabama, more than 850,000 voted, a whopping 25 percent of eligible voters.
And it is arguably due in part to Trump’s presence on the ballot, drawing both voters for him and against him.
There’s a movement underway, however, that could limit participation in Alabama Republican primaries for future elections.
Alabama Republican Party chairwoman Terry Lathan is spearheading an effort to have “closed” primaries in the Yellowhammer State, which would mean only registered Republicans could vote in Republican primaries. It would mean the same for the Democrats, allowing only registered Democrats to participate in their primaries.
Currently, any registered voter can show up at their polling precinct and request either a Republican or Democratic ballot. Advocates for a closed primary fear Alabama’s largely single-party system — in which all statewide officeholders are Republican — will result in Democrats participating in GOP primaries to vote for less-conservative Republicans or RINOs, Republicans in name only.
Lathan, for example, argues that you wouldn’t allow Alabama head football coach Nick Saban to pick Auburn’s football players or Auburn head football coach Gus Malzahn to pick Alabama’s players, so why should the party leave open the possibility of Democrats selecting who Republicans nominate?
The most notable recent example of this occurring in Alabama politics was during the 2010 gubernatorial election. Then-candidate Bradley Byrne came out ahead in the Republican primary that year by 14,000 votes over his closest competitor, Robert Bentley. Bentley barely edged Tim James by 200 votes for second place, but that was good enough to earn Bentley a spot in a runoff against Byrne.
In that runoff election, Bentley beat Byrne by more than 50,000 votes, but not without some controversy. Many believed the Democrat-leaning Alabama Education Association teachers’ union worked behind the scenes against Byrne and lobbied for Democrats to participate in the GOP primary against Byrne, who had been critical of the AEA.
It’s not just Democrats meddling in Republican elections, either. In 1986, Democratic Party heads in Alabama accused Republicans of participating in its primary process, which included a runoff contest between then-Alabama Attorney General Charles Graddick and then-Lt. Gov. Bill Baxley.
Graddick won by a few thousand votes, but Baxley challenged the outcome in court, arguing Graddick encouraged Republicans to cross over and vote him. The case went all the way to the state Supreme Court, which ordered the Democratic Party to hold another primary or make Baxley its nominee. The party gave Baxley the nomination, but that resulted in voters electing Guy Hunt, the first Republican-elected governor in Alabama since Reconstruction.
This phenomenon is not just an Alabama issue. Nationally, it happened in 2008 when conservative talk-show host Rush Limbaugh encouraged his listeners to participate in some Democratic presidential primaries throughout the country in an effort he called “Operation: Chaos.”
Limbaugh wanted his listeners to prolong the fight for the Democratic presidential nomination between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. At that point, Sen. John McCain had already locked up the Republican nod and Limbaugh argued that as long as Clinton and Obama were beating each other up, McCain could focus on the general election and his opponent, be it Obama or Clinton, would be weaker.
Limbaugh’s plan was sound in theory, but did not win McCain the election.
While having a closed primary may prevent these shenanigans, it seems very undemocratic. Requiring party association seems like a knee-jerk reaction that is meant to benefit so-called establishment candidates.
Trump has introduced an entire new pool of voters into the Republican Party. Although it may have prevented Trump from emerging victorious in Alabama’s primary earlier this month, it may have reduced his margin of victory and taken away some of his delegates, which at this point in the contest are crucial as we head toward the uncertainty of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland this summer.
Beyond that, would this extra hurdle really prevent RINOs from infiltrating the Republican Party? What’s to stop a Democrat from registering as a Republican just to participate in the primary? Alabama isn’t a swing state, where there is action in both the Democratic and Republican primaries on a statewide level. Whoever has the “D” next to their name is, for the most part, token opposition. Aside from Alabama’s seventh congressional district and some other local elections, all of the action is going to be on the Republican ticket. There just isn’t much of a reason for anyone not to be a registered Republican.
If Democrats want to meddle in GOP politics, closing the primary won’t entirely stop it. So why place any obstacle at the ballot box that might stymie the growth of GOP voters?
If the Republican Party elders want to keep the RINOs out, then limit who can run as a Republican in the primary instead of who votes in the primary. That seems a more logical approach.