Ohio Bill Would Force Party Affiliation on Voters -- Whether They Want It or Not

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Ohio has open partisan primaries that do not require party affiliation as a condition for participation. However, a new bill in the Ohio House of Representatives would change the rules so that the right to vote was conditioned on joining the Republican or Democratic Party.

House Bill 437, introduced by Ohio State Reps. Beth Lear and Brian Lorentz does 3 main things:

1. It requires voters to register with the Republican or Democratic Party to vote in the primaries and sets the registration deadline 90 days before scheduled primary elections. 

2. It bars registered voters and candidates from participating in a party's primary that does not match their voter registration -- including "unaffiliated" voters, who would be barred completely.

3. It will automatically change voters' registered party affiliation based on the last primary election in which they voted.

In other words, the bill will force party affiliation on every voter, regardless of their preferred affiliation or voting intentions at the time. Voters would need to be aware of this change 3 months prior to a primary or potentially be disenfranchised entirely.

Primary reform over the last couple of decades has largely trended toward open processes and momentum is growing for nonpartisan reform that would adopt Top Four or Top Five systems that include all voters and candidates. 

However, the parties are fighting back harder than ever.

Ohio is part of a growing list of states where party leaders are seeking to gain absolute control over the most critical stage of the elections process -- including Alaska and Colorado (which recently reformed their elections to give voters greater access).

Other states include Texas, Mississippi, and a few states where the efforts have already succeeded like Louisiana, Wyoming, West Virginia, and Tennessee (which did not close its primaries but made it a criminal offense to vote in a party's primary if you are not a "bona fide" member).

The authors of the Ohio bill say the main purpose of it is to diminish crossover voting and party raiding -- something commonly heard from partisans who advocate for closed primaries.

“The reason most people jump in at the last minute or pull a different party’s ballot at the primary election, is because they’re either trying to get the least offensive person in the opposite party or they’re trying to, for some other reason, manipulate the opposite party’s outcomes,” Rep. Lear said in an interview with Cleveland.com.

When pressed for examples, she said that the late conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh encouraged voters in 2008 to vote for Barack Obama because he would be a weaker candidate compared to Hillary Clinton.

She also mentioned how Democratic voters were encouraged to vote in recent GOP primaries for governor and US Senate. However, there is no evidence that either of these things had an impact on the results in their respective elections.

Anti-Trump groups encouraged crossover voting in New Hampshire, South Carolina, Texas, and other states to vote for Nikki Haley and weaken Trump -- and Trump still won by large margins.

Just because there are "calls" for it, doesn't mean it will influence voters to do it.

Research shows that Lear is incorrect in her claim about crossover voting and is merely perpetuating a partisan myth. Even in the low percentage of cases where crossover voting occurs, the voter's motivations are mostly to vote for their first-choice candidate.

Either that, or they simply want their vote to matter.

This is not to say crossover voting doesn't happen, but there is no evidence that it happens in such a number or to such a degree that it burdens the voting rights of party members, the parties themselves, or affects outcomes.

House Bill 437 is not the only closed primary bill up for consideration in the 2024 session. However, neither House Bil 208 nor House Bill 210 have made any progress past committee since they were originally introduced in 2023. 

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