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GOP panel to weigh party registration plan

Erik Schelzig, Associated Press

Friday, December 3, 2010

NASHVILLE - The executive committee of the state Republican Party is expected to consider a proposal Saturday to require party registration to vote in Tennessee primaries.

Committee member Mark Winslow, a former executive director of the state party, said the proposal already has the support of 12 of the committee's 66 members.

"I don't think that it's fair to people that believe in the Republican Party and Republican principles to have Democrats come into the system and determine who our nominees are going to be," Winslow said.

While Winslow was an adviser to the congressional campaigns of two Republican candidates who lost narrow primary elections, he said his position predates the failed bids of Lou Ann Zelenik in the 6th District and Robin Smith in the 3rd District.

"This has nothing to do with me personally," he said. "This is something I've advocated a long time."

The General Assembly would have to approve any change in current state law, though the GOP's expanded majorities in both chambers would likely lend more weight to the executive committee's recommendations.

Party Chairman Chris Devaney said he considers the question of limiting participation to Republicans an important issue, though not one that will necessarily be decided at the upcoming meeting.

"An issue like this, quite frankly, does need some discussion on it," he said. "I don't know if Saturday particularly would lend itself to a really healthy discussion on it."

The committee is also scheduled to vote on whether to give Devaney a full two-year term as chairman after he was elected to fill Smith's unexpired term last year when she left to run for Congress. "I have the votes," Devaney predicted.

Tennessee voters aren't registered by party and voters often participate in different primaries depending on campaign developments. The law allows for challenges of people who are "not a bona fide member of political party," though that status is not clearly defined.

Republicans have charged that Democrats have sought to "infiltrate" county party organization meetings to influence the direction of those local organizations, and members of both parties have alleged coordinated crossover voting in primaries.

"As our bylaws call for right now, all you have to do is sign some worthless loyalty oath, and you're allowed to participate," said Winslow. "Frankly, that's not going to be a manageable system going forward."

Republican Gov.-elect Bill Haslam was unavailable for comment Thursday but during the campaign, he said he supported the current open primary system.

Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey of Blountville, who unsuccessfully sought the Republican gubernatorial nomination this year, said he supported a change to prevent Democrats from "rigging the election."

A bill seeking to require party registration failed in 2009.

"There are virtues and pitfalls in either system, so I tend to come down on the side of open primaries," said Memphis attorney John Ryder, another member of the GOP executive committee. "I think the people of Tennessee enjoy having the freedom to move at will to the party that is most attractive to them."

Ryder noted that fellow Republicans in neighboring Virginia last month took the opposite tack in deciding to move to a primary election instead of a party convention for statewide candidates.

Republicans there had previously resisted primaries on the basis that Virginia's open primary law had allowed Democrats to meddle in their nomination processes. The change was sold by supporters as a necessity for broadening the party's appeal in the upcoming presidential election year to Independents who went overwhelmingly for Democrats in 2008.

Ryder acknowledged there are serious policy arguments for either keeping or changing the current system in Tennessee.

"In every system you've got, there will be some group of people seeking to change it," he said.