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Parties funded by taxpayers can’t exclude them from voting

Steve Brawner Special to the Times Record

Can a political party close its doors to taxpaying outsiders when it’s heavily subsidized by them? That question arises after two incidents Saturday, only one of which was important.

The one that’s not important occurred when the Republican Party of Arkansas barred an Arkansas Democrat-Gazette photographer from attending its state convention. Executive Director Sarah Jo Reynolds later told the newspaper that the party didn’t want the photographer to video record the meeting. The Democrat-Gazette’s reporter was allowed inside.

The one that is important is the party including support for closed primaries in its platform that it approved Saturday. Delegates want to change the law so that Arkansans would have to register to vote as Republicans in order to vote in the Republican primary. Arkansas is an open primary state that allows any voter to vote in either the Republican or Democratic primary.

There is a logic to this. A political party should be a collection of like-minded individuals. Its members naturally would want the primary process to nominate candidates who best represent them in the November general election. When voters can vote wherever they want, non-Republicans can affect the outcome.

Some party members might be concerned about the efforts of a group like Common Ground Arkansas. This spring, that group of independents encouraged voters to vote strategically in the Republican primary. Its argument was that since Arkansas is now a Republican state and the Republican is going to win in November, voters should participate in that primary so they could have a say in who ultimately wins (and maybe pull the party toward the center and away from former President Donald Trump).

That’s fine. Here’s what’s not. In Maryland, Democrats spent more than $1 million in the Republican primary to help a candidate, supported by Trump, who says President Joe Biden didn’t win the 2020 election.

Why would Democrats support that candidate? Because they believed he would be easier for their own candidate to defeat in November in their blue-ish state. So far they are succeeding. That candidate won the Republican nomination.

It’s understandable that the Republican Party would not want any meddling by Democrats and non-Republicans in their own primary.

But here’s the other side: Party primaries are basically how we elect most of our officials. Candidates must run under a party label to have any chance of getting elected. In many places in Arkansas and in statewide races, they must do so as a Republican if they want to win. The November election is largely a formality.

In a closed primary system, voters could be forced to either declare themselves a member of the Republican Party or else abstain from the election that matters most – the one in the spring that essentially determines their governor and also their sheriff. And if party membership is required, what would come next? Requiring everyone to pay a due?

The result would be a smaller number of partisan base voters electing our officials, who in turn would reflect those voters. Candidates would have little reason to appeal to the broader electorate. They would go as far right as necessary – or as far left if Democrats also ran a closed primary – to reach those registered party members. Elections are already too much about appealing to the base. Closed primaries would make it worse by shrinking the base.

Another objection to closed primaries is the fact that while the Republican Party is a private entity, both it and the Democratic Party depend heavily on the government for their operations.

Primaries are administered by taxpayer-funded state and local officials in taxpayer-funded buildings using taxpayer-funded resources. The voting machines, the security, the cybersecurity, the counting process – it’s all done using tax dollars collected from all Arkansans, not only Republicans.

If a party wants to exclude voters, perhaps it should pay for its own process rather than rely on the taxpayers.

It still would result in fewer Arkansans and a narrower slice of the electorate electing officials, but at least the rest of us wouldn’t be paying for it.

Steve Brawner is a freelance journalist and syndicated columnist. Email him at or follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.


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