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Registering by party idea spurs questions, fear ahead of South Carolina primaries

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On its June primary ballot, the S.C. Republican Party will ask whether voters should register by party, opening up old fears about the impact of a closed primary system. File AP.

Lonnie Smith grew up questioning his world, including why certain people got elected in South Carolina.

The 28-year-old Conway man can still remember going to church in 2004 when George W. Bush was running for president. He kept hearing people in the pews describe the Texas Republican as "a good person and a good Christian man."

"Would you go to the plumber with the Christian fish on the back of their truck or would you go with the one who is going to do the best job?" Smith remembers asking a fellow believer one Sunday.

"I got a lot of pushback for that. But that's just how I always think about politics: I try to gauge who would be the best fit based on the job duties and not based on their political party."

Just a few days ago the S.C. Republican Party took a step toward a system that would bar people who do not pick an allegiance to a political party from voting in either of the major parties' primaries.

On its June primary ballot the party will ask participants whether voters should register by party. The result, if it does happen and that's still a long way off, would be publicly declaring if you are a Democrat or Republican.

The move has opened up old fears and raised new questions about who should be allowed to vote in South Carolina's primaries.

"It comes down to whether you think political parties are private or whether you see primaries as the gateway to all of our democracy," said Wendy Underhill, program director of elections and redistricting for the National Conference of State Legislatures. 


Do you believe that voters should have the option to choose to affiliate with a political party when they register to vote or change their voter registration in South Carolina?

You voted:

'A baby step'

South Carolina is currently one of 15 states that have "open" primaries. This means any registered voter may cast a ballot in either party's primary — but not both. South Carolina voters also don't have to register by political party.

In theory, that means someone who identifies as a Democrat could vote in a Republican primary and vice versa.

A few states are rethinking their electoral process. Colorado, for example, voted in 2016 to adopt open primaries. But on the whole, Underhill said the issue is not a hot topic in state legislatures.

"In some ways, people get used to the system that they are in and, in order to change it, you have to be thinking that something there is really not working," she said.

In South Carolina the push to register by party has been building for decades. Republicans have long sought to pass legislation that would bar voters from casting ballots in a primary election unless they register with that particular party. Tampering or diluting the vote is one fear.

While previous efforts have failed, the discussion never went away.

State GOP Chairman Drew McKissick said state political parties need to know whether primary voters are party loyalists or crossover voters deviating from their usual political leanings.

"The way we do it now is the worst way we can possibly do it," he said. "Parties have absolutely no knowledge about our voters until they show up at the polls. What we're talking about here with this referendum is a baby step for people to express whether or not they would be in favor of affiliation."

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The effort rekindled after liberal Democrat Dimitri Cherny filed to run for Congress last month against Mark Sanford in the GOP's 1st Congressional District primary. Under state law the party was powerless to stop him. 

Independent impact

Meanwhile, many voters, such as Smith, appear to be moving away from political affiliation altogether.

According to a recent Pew Research Center study of 10,000 registered voters nationwide, 37 percent identified as independents, 33 percent identified as Democrats and 26 percent identified as Republicans. The percentage of voters who told Pew they identified as an independent voter is the highest in 25 years.

Smith, who said he has voted in both Republican and Democratic primaries since 2008, said he would stop voting in primaries altogether if that meant he had to register with a political party.

"It just seems to reinforce that polarization that we already have in this country," he said.

In ruby red South Carolina, some districts rarely have a Democratic primary to offer its left-leaning voters. The same goes for Republicans elsewhere.

Holley Ulbrich, the co-president of the S.C. League of Women Voters, said moving toward a closed primary system could lead to more hyper-partisan candidates who represent only their rigid political base rather than their districts.

"At the League, we want legislators and public officials to be responsive," she said. "In our opinion, they are not as responsive if they don't have competition or don't have to go out and court all types of voters in their district."

Winthrop University political scientist Scott Huffmon said the GOP's move is not an uncommon one from a party in power. It's an attempt to keep its message pure and to maintain control of the agenda, he said.

Democratic Party Chairman Trav Robertson said the Republican proposal is just the most recent GOP effort to make voting harder, on top of new photo identification requirements and efforts to shorten the early voting period.

"The fear that they clearly have is they are losing control of their own party. It’s completely asinine," said Robertson. "When you control nine state constitutional offices, six of seven congressional seats, and hold a majority in the state House and a super-majority in the Senate, what the hell are you afraid of?" 

Even if primary voters overwhelmingly back the GOP proposal this June, the results are purely anecdotal. It would take an act of the state Legislature to allow registration by party. So far, those 18 previous efforts have stalled in almost 20 years. 

McKissick said the referendum results will be used to lobby for House Bill 4418, one of the more recent efforts, which has 49 cosponsors. 

Not all Republicans are on board with the idea.

State Rep. Neal Collins, R-Pickens, on social media described the state GOP effort as "pointless" adding bluntly: "The point is to deter voters."

"We already have horrible turnout in primaries ranging from 10 to 20 percent. It's just odd to me to focus on putting up even more barriers to go vote when people don't go out and vote anyway," he said.

Reach Caitlin Byrd at 843-937-5590 and follow her on Twitter @MaryCaitlinByrd.

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