By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News
The Alabama Republican Party is expected to vote this month on a resolution to close primary elections.
Approval of the resolution at the annual summer meeting on Saturday, Aug. 13 in Montgomery would be a first step to significantly change the voting process. It would ultimately take action by the Alabama Legislature to change the law.
“It’s time that we close the primary election,” ALGOP Chairman John Wahl told Alabama Daily News. “This cycle really highlighted that need… We saw not just crossover voting, but Democrats bragging about purposely trying to influence the Republican primary. That’s unacceptable.”
Wahl said a resolution has been filed but isn’t yet public.
The closure conversation began after the one-vote defeat May 24 of three-term incumbent Sen. Tom Whatley, R-Auburn, by Auburn City Councilman Jay Hovey. That contest turned into a five-week saga when Whatley challenged the outcome to the party and found a resident who said she tried to vote for Whatley but her ballot was thrown out. The party eventually sided with the Secretary of State and Alabama Law Enforcement Agency, who said the woman was not properly registered to vote when she cast her ballot for Whatley. Whatley conceded the race just prior to that decision. Hovey now faces Democrat Sherri Reese for the east Alabama district.
The contest has become a rallying cry for Republicans who sided with Whatley saying Democrats organized to influence the race. An Auburn professor and Democrat wrote in the New York Times about why she voted in the GOP primary.
Alabama is one of 15 states with open primaries, according to the National Conference on State Legislatures. Nine states have closed primaries that require voters to register with parties prior to voting. In between those are states with partially closed and partially open primaries, which allow parties to make decisions each cycle on who will be allowed to participate.
Nine states’s primaries are “open to unaffiliated voters,” but keep registered Democrats or Republicans out of the other party’s contest.
Wahl said he’d support a system that allows parties to decide if independents can vote in their primaries.
With or without a resolution from the state party, there will likely be a bill in the Legislature next year to curb liberal-leaning Alabamians’ participation in GOP primaries.
“(Primaries) are a party function,” said Sen. Chris Elliott, R-Daphne, is the vice-chair of the Senate Government Affairs Committee. “Should we let Democrats influence the outcome of that? The answer, from where I sit, is no.”
Several Democrats said closing the primary process would hurt Alabamians’ ability to participate in elections. Democrat Party Chairman and state Rep. Chris England. D-Tuscaloosa, said closure is a solution searching for a problem and will have unintended consequences.
“It’s just another reason people won’t participate in our process,” England said. Voter turnout statewide in May was about 23% of registered voters.
About concerns in Senate District 27, England said people could still influence GOP races simply by registering as Republicans in a specific election cycle.
Republicans currently hold every statewide elected office, six of seven Congressional seats and a supermajority in the Alabama House and Senate.
“Democrats know that in order to be relevant in the primary process they’ve gotta vote in the Republican Party primary,” Elliott said.
Asked if closing the primaries to only those registered would disenfranchise the many Alabamians who consider themselves independent, Elliott said that could be the reason for a “compromise” plan that allows independents to participate.
“I think that may be where we end up because there is some trepidation when it comes to saying ‘only Republicans, nobody else,” Elliott said. “I think there are a lot of folks out there who are clearly aligned with Republicans but don’t necessarily want to identify one way or another. Or they are Libertarians and, hey, I’ve got a libertarian streak in me from time to time.”
Tabitha Isner, who is running to be chair of the Democratic Party, said closed primaries and the lack of districts where Republicans and Democrats have to compete against each other would result in extreme candidates.
“The result would be that you get more extreme candidates on both sides of the aisle because there’s no legitimate concern that the other party could win if you had too extreme of a candidate,” Isner said.
“… I think this is part of a pattern with the GOP, sort of being less concerned with voter participation and the health function of democracy and more concerned with partisan victories.”
Separate from the crossover voting issue, Wahl said the May 24 election highlighted errors made after redistricting. Three Alabama House races were challenged and local election officials admitted to some voters receiving incorrect ballots following the redrawing of district lines last fall. The party opted not to overturn any election results in the Etowah and Limestone county races.
Wahl said he suspects there were issues in other races too.
“We need to make sure that our boards of registrars have voter mapping software and that there’s a second layer of accountability, whether it’s the probate judge and the Secretary of State that double checks (ballot distribution)” Wahl said.
Elliott agreed more oversight is needed.
“(Ballot distribution errors are) a government failing of a fundamental right and those are the types of mistakes that really undermine people’s faith in the electoral process,” he said. “That’s not OK.”
Rep. Wes Allen, R-Troy, is Republican’s nominee for secretary of state and the vice-chair of the House Constitution, Campaigns and Elections Committee. He said its important that boards of registrars across all 67 counties have all of the resources that they need to ensure that the voters are placed into the correct precincts. Allen faces Democrat Pamela J. Laffitte in November.
“We must ensure that the data they are receiving is correct and that they have access to every available tool to ensure that data is implemented correctly,” Allen told Alabama Daily News.