Commentary: Threatening voters in open primaries is anti-democratic

May 2, 2022 7:00 am
Donkey and elephant in front of American flag. (Getty Images)

(Getty Images)

My first active experience in the election process was voting in the presidential election in 2000 when George W. Bush was running against Al Gore.  I was a senior at Union University — a highly conservative, Southern Baptist university in Jackson, Tenn.  I didn’t really do any research on the candidates because as a good Southern Baptist I believed it was my duty to vote for W.  

That was the last time I recall voting for a Republican until two weeks ago in my county’s local Republican primary.  After two decades of finding myself leaning more and more left, I had to objectively look at the candidates for mayor in my conservative county and decide that if I wanted a voice in this local process, I had to vote in the Republican primary.  The fallout has been immense.

For anyone unfamiliar with the geographic layout of West Tennessee, Madison County is almost exactly halfway between Memphis and Nashville and is split in half by Interstate 40.  It’s the most populated county in West Tennessee outside of Shelby, but it feels much smaller than it actually is.  The total population hovers around 100,000 but, predictably, everybody seems to know everybody.  

The most powerful branch of government in Madison County is the County Commission and, up until recently, it was the only branch of government that wove political party affiliation into the electoral process.  

The local Republican party in Madison County is powerful and almost guaranteed to hold the majority of political offices if they continue to churn out candidates with an “R” next to their names each election cycle.  

Two weeks ago, early voting began for primaries.  Locally speaking, this election cycle is extremely pivotal in regards to the direction our county will take over the next few years.  For the first time in a long time, there is positive momentum in Madison County as well as for the largest city in the county, Jackson.  

Many Madison County political races are decided in the primary. I’m progressive but don’t affiliate with either major local party and I voted in the Republican primary because I want a voice in my county. Then, the floodgates opened and I was told I might have “my day in court.”

The impending arrival of Ford Motor Co. to the region has everyone very excited about potential growth and opportunities.  There are multiple county commission seats up for election as well as the position of county mayor.  Here’s the catch, though: For most of these positions, the primary election is essentially the general election.  

Because Madison County is so conservative and the local Republican party so powerful, the winners of the Republican primary elections are almost guaranteed to win the general election.  Several positions don’t have a Democratic challenger awaiting the winner of the Republican primary.  As a progressive living in a town that I genuinely love, I had to make a calculated decision in order to have my voice heard.  I had to vote in the Republican primary.

Before I could even place my vote on the first day of early voting, I received a call informing me that a voter had their vote challenged due to the fact that the voter wasn’t a Republican.  Because the Democratic party had no primaries being opposed, anyone voting was assumed to be voting in the Republican primary. 

The next day I wrote a column in the local paper about why I, as a progressive, voted in the Republican primary.  I went on our local radio station and discussed it.  Then the floodgates opened.  

The Madison County Republican Party (MCRP) threatened legal action against anyone who voted in the primary that wasn’t a Republican.  Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett, came to Jackson and floated the idea of prosecuting people when he said, “It’s certainly against the law to practice that (cross-voting), and it’s a violation that could be prosecuted if the district attorney chose to do that.”  

The chairman of the Tennessee Republican Party, Scott Golden, co-authored an editorial in The Jackson Sun with Madison County Republican Party Chairman, Larry Lowrance, that said, “Violating this law is a very serious action, prosecuted as a Class C misdemeanor and under certain circumstances, a possible felony.”

All of these responses by leading members of the Republican party reek of fear and panic.  They are afraid of losing the stranglehold their party has on the state and on Madison County specifically.  They are afraid of people having an individual voice in the election process.  The threats of legal action amount to nothing more than scare tactics and voter suppression.

Local elections affect communities far more than national elections do.  The influence of a small group of people with a massive amount of power can have a devastating effect on silencing voices in communities.  

As a citizen in my county, I should have a choice in who leads the county.  I know, after years of living here, that the majority of people who vote in general elections will vote for the candidate with the “R” next to their name.  I know that whoever wins this primary will be our next mayor.  I don’t want the candidate who hangs his MAGA hat on the fact that he voted for Donald Trump four times and disparaged his closest competitor in the mayoral primary by accusing him of supporting the Black Lives Matter movement as if that were a bad thing leading my county the next four years.  

I also know that Tennessee does not have closed primaries, and that the law that has been constantly used as a threat by these Republicans is essentially impotent.  

My electoral vote may always dissolve in a sea of red in Tennessee, but I’ll be damned if my voice gets silenced in my own town.  The beauty of democracy is that representation matters; that a single vote is worth something.  This idea is never more true than on the local level.  

According to the narrative the Republican party is communicating, if I’m not a member of the party then I can’t vote in this primary even if I—as someone who does not affiliate with either local party—believe the best candidate for mayor is on the Republican ticket.  

That doesn’t sound like having a voice in the election process to me.  

I had someone tell me recently that I need to have a short list of lawyers on stand-by, and the Madison County Commission Chairman told me that I “may get my day in court.”  I’m fine with that.  Local elections matter.  Having a voice matters.  Fighting this fight matters.

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Gabe Hart
Gabe Hart

Gabe Hart is chief communications officer for Haywood County Schools and a former teacher of English and Literature. He writes a monthly op-ed column for The Jackson Sun as well as feature stories for the quarterly journal, "Our Jackson Home." He also serves on the education committee for the newly formed Jackson Equity Project which seeks to advocate for equity and justice for marginalized, disenfranchised, and oppressed people living in Jackson. Beyond writing and teaching, Gabe enjoys spending time with his fourteen year old daughter, exercising, and listening to music (specifically The National and Jason Isbell.)