Ohio needs to scrap open primary elections | Jim Renacci

Jim Renacci
Jim Renacci

It doesn’t seem fair to allow someone to vote in an organization they aren’t a member of. Yet that’s exactly what’s permitted to happen under Ohio’s current political set up: loyal Democrats are permitted to vote in a Republican primary, or vice versa, to influence the outcome or sabotage the nomination process.

Dozens of states including Ohio operate under this so-called “open primary” system, and it’s been abused before by voters from both parties. In 2008, hundreds of thousands of conservative Republicans flocked to the polls to vote in the Democratic presidential primary after Rush Limbaugh urged them to intentionally sow chaos. Last year, liberal Democrats voted in Republican primaries to try to stop President Trump’s endorsed candidates.

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This is called primary “raiding,” and it’s no way to run elections. It’s far past time for the Ohio Legislature and the secretary of state to protect Ohio’s primary process and close party primaries to only voters affiliated with that party. Allowing this to happen doesn’t just undermine the integrity of our country’s nominating process. It also denies America’s great political parties the ability to vet and vote for their own standard-bearers, for president on down to local offices, free from disruptive outside influencers with their own ideological agendas.

It was never intended to be this way in Ohio. State law has made clear for decades that a voter must be affiliated with the party they intend to participate in. The law even allows for poll workers to “challenge” a voter they suspect isn’t genuinely aligned with that party. Just ten years ago, former Democrat Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner said it had been the view of her office “for years” that precinct officials “must challenge” all voters who “crossover” from one party to vote in another to ensure their change of political affiliation is real.

In fact, in 2008 Cuyahoga County tried to do just that. Cuyahoga precinct officials challenged over 20,000 voters by requiring them to sign a form swearing to their new party allegiance. Many of them allegedly lied, which is an “election falsification” felony in Ohio punishable by a hefty fine or even a prison sentence, but threats of prosecutions never went anywhere. In 2010, Brunner tried to tighten enforcement of the law even further, but new guidance issued by her successor, then-Secretary of State Jon Husted, only permits poll workers to challenge a voter if they have personal knowledge that they are affiliated with a different party. This new requirement set the bar so high that today the law has become all but meaningless.

Both existing law and past precedent make it clear that Ohio was never intended to be an “open primary” state. The law can be difficult to enforce, but the path to fix it is clear: update Ohio’s voter registration system to make it possible for voters to register with or change parties year-round, then put a registration deadline in place in order for a voter to participate in a party’s primary.

Major swing states such as Florida and Pennsylvania require a voter to register with a party at least a month before the primary in order to vote for that party’s primary candidates. There’s no reason Ohio can’t operate under a similar system. The decision to be a Republican or Democrat should be a conscious decision determined in advance, not a political decision made on election day to manipulate results.

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There has been bipartisan consensus here in the past. Ensuring that voters are actually affiliated with the party they are voting in isn’t about making it harder for people to have their voice heard. Florida has a closed primary, and has actually had higher primary voter turnout than Ohio in the past five straight elections. In contrast, California recently scrapped partisan primaries entirely, only to see anemic turnout in its open primary last summer. The key to higher primary turnout is competitive races and exciting candidates, not robbing parties of the ability to select their own nominees without outside influence.

It’s time to act now and close Ohio’s primary ahead of the 2024 presidential election so that both Democrats and Republicans can nominate their best candidates without fear of the other party pressing their thumbs on the scales. Both parties will encourage as many people as possible to join their primary process; some candidates may inspire voters to switch parties. This is all a healthy and welcome part of the electoral process, but the process works best when it has rules in place.

Closing Ohio’s primary by putting a registration deadline in place will do just that.

Jim Renacci was a 2022 candidate for Ohio governor in the Republican primary and is a former congresssman and mayor of Wadsworth.

This article originally appeared on Akron Beacon Journal: Ohio's open primary elections harm Democrats, Republicans