Should Ohio have closed primaries? Some key Republicans are pushing for that change

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COLUMBUS, Ohio (Statehouse News Bureau) — Right now, Ohio voters do not have to declare a party when they register. And they can vote in Republican or Democratic primaries by simply asking for the ballot of the party primary they prefer at the time of voting. Voters can also switch back and forth between parties in different elections in different years. But some Republicans in Northeast Ohio want to close Ohio’s primaries. And Republican Secretary of State Frank LaRose is indicating he is on board with the idea.

Poll workers wait for voters in Franklin County, Ohio behind a door that has a voting today sign taped to it
Poll workers wait for voters in Franklin County, Ohio. [Daniel Konik | Statehouse News Bureau]
According to the group Ohioans for Responsible Government, LaRose told them he is “100% in favor of getting the Ohio primary system closed.” And LaRose is quoted by the group as saying people who cross over to the other party to vote for the candidate they think would be weaker against their preferred party’s candidate – called “party raiding” – is “absurd” and contributes to a lack of trust in the election system.
“The simple solution is this, instead of letting people show up in a bus paid for by some leftist group, why not make them decide to switch parties far in advance? Make them actually register as a member of the Republican party or actually register as a member of the Democrat party. That is the best solution.” LaRose reportedly said.
LaRose’s spokesman, Rob Nichols, said the secretary is definitely open to the conversation about closing primaries.

“This is the start of a conversation to make our voter registration database more accurately reflect their party identification,” Nichols said. Nichols said there are currently approximately 8 million registered voters in Ohio but according to the voter registration database, there are 1.3 million Ohio voters affiliated with the Republican Party and approximately 1 million affiliated Democrats.“We know that, generally speaking, people vote according to party so this is a way of modernizing the voter registration database to make it more accurately reflect people’s party id preferences. But again, this is just the start of a discussion,” Nichols said.

In 2008, the late conservative broadcaster Rush Limbaugh urged Republicans to cross over and vote in Democratic primaries to weaken former President Obama’s chances of winning. In subsequent elections, the tables have been turned as Democrats have been urged to vote in various Republican primaries to try to have an effect on the candidate ultimately put on the ballot. Ohioans who wanted to crossover vote in primaries used to be required to sign a loyalty pledge if they are challenged but in 2011, Secretary of State Jon Husted said voters couldn’t be challenged unless the election official has “personal knowledge that the voter is a member of a different party.”

Former Ohio Congressman Jim Renacci has run in two competitive Republican primaries recently – for governor in 2022 and for US Senate in 2018. He lost in both of those primaries. He’s now the chair of the Medina County Republican Party.

Renacci said he’s been speaking to Ohio lawmakers about closing the primary and he added they are receptive to the idea so far. He said Ohio needs to end “party raiding” to make sure the party faithful elect the candidates they want. He said he wants to see a plan where voters must declare their party by December 31 to vote in the primaries the following spring.

“We’re not taking anybody’s vote away from them. We’re just saying, in this legislative push, that you have to make a conscious decision, not a political decision,” Renacci said.

Next spring, Republican primary voters will decide who will oppose Democratic US Sen. Sherrod Brown in the fall. The Republican field is likely to have multiple candidates, as two have already declared. Renacci said it’s important that Republicans make that decision without the contest being swayed by Democrats.

Jen Miller, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Ohio, said her group opposes closed primaries. But if that change is made, she said lawmakers need to make sure it increases voter participation and leads to more competitive general elections. However, she said with the current map, there’s a lot of gerrymandered districts and that, she said, leads voters to want to affect primaries, even if they don’t really like the candidates on a particular party’s ballot.

“There’s a lot of Ohioans that live in districts where the most important election is actually the primary. It can be in a voter’s personal interest to switch parties, depending on what the primary election looks like in their area,” Miller said.

At this point, there isn’t legislation to make Ohio’s primaries closed. But Renacci said it could be coming soon.