Rep. Gary Click, R-Vickery, describing a bill he’s co-sponsoring with Rep. Jennifer Gross, R-West Chester, to close Ohio’s primary elections. (Photo by Nick Evans, Ohio Capital Journal.)

BY:  – Ohio Capital Journal

Two Ohio lawmakers want voters to declare their party months before the primary election. But in its first committee hearing this week the idea was met with pushback from both sides of the aisle.

The proposal is actually one of two measures in the Ohio House calling for closed primaries elections. Their most notable difference is deadlines. One, sponsored by Rep. Thomas Hall, R-Madison Twp., allows voters to change party affiliation up to 30 days prior to an election. But the one introduced this week, proposed by Reps. Jennifer Gross, R-West Chester, and Gary Click, R-Vickery, pushes that deadline back to Dec. 31 of the prior year.

If their proposal were in effect today, voters would have to declare their party before heading to their New Year’s Eve party if they want to have a say in next year’s presidential primary.

The stakes

In committee, Gross argued a closed primary is desirable because it “grants Ohioans more faith in the election process, without fear of meddling by crossover on the date of the election.”

Click added, “when one party has an uncontested candidate, while the others other parties still sorting through the process, there’s a temptation to rate the opponents primary simply to spoil the process.”

Click cited the example of Rush Limbaugh’s “Operation Chaos” during the 2008 Democratic primary.

“I did not participate in that, I did not think it was ethical to do so,” Click insisted, “but I do know a lot of people who did.”

However, political scientists have cast serious doubt on the actual impact of Limbaugh’s campaign. And while voters crossing party lines certainly does happen, researchers contend “party raiding” is rare. More often voters cast a ballot for a different party’s candidate because they like that candidate — not because they dislike that candidate’s opponent in the primary.

The gap

Both proposals would grandfather in a party’s existing voters, but that still presents a challenging math problem.

Currently, Ohioans don’t select their party affiliation when they register to vote. Instead, they declare their affiliation by requesting that party’s ballot. As of the last statewide primary election in 2022, Ohio had more than 7.9 million registered voters. But less than 1.7 million of them aligned with the Democratic or Republican party by actually casting a ballot.

That means if either bill were in effect today, more than 6 million Ohioans could be in limbo — unaffiliated and thus unable to vote on partisan candidates next March.

Hall attempts to create a more orderly transition by tying his cut off to the voter registration deadline. In previous committee hearings he’s argued “people know there’s an election coming and know to update their party registration.”

But by setting the deadline months earlier, Gross and Click create a gap that could disenfranchise unaffiliated voters as well as those who want to change party in good faith.

There are voters who reliably vote Republican or Democratic, but just don’t show up for midterm primaries. There are voters who normally vote for Democrats, but have grown disillusioned with President Joe Biden. And there are voters who normally vote for Republicans who oppose former President Donald Trump.

Under Click and Gross’s bill, if those voters select their party after Dec. 31, they would be barred from voting in any party’s 2024 primary election.

The pushback

Rep. Dani Isaacsohn, D-Cincinnati, criticized the sponsors, suggesting their proposal would only contribute to existing partisan divisions. Rep. Bill Seitz, R-Cincinnati, meanwhile, asked how boards are supposed to verify the provisional ballots cast by unaffiliated voters.

Gross seemed to discount Seitz’s concerns.

“They are independents or are non-registered because they do not vote in the primary — agree?,” she asked.

“Yeah,” Seitz replied, “But now they want to.”

Gross just sidestepped and reiterated the bill’s provisions.

“If they pulled in February in order to vote in March, they would not be a registered Republican or Democrat,” she said. “They would be provisional, and then they would be an actual Republican or Democrat for the next primary. So ‘provisional,’ the definition of provisional, and what that looks like we will need to get back to you.”

But Seitz’s line of questioning seems to imagine a more flexible bill than the one before committee. Although Gross and Click’s measure creates path for unaffiliated voters to cast provisional ballots under an obscure partisan challenge process, it’s a dead end. According to the bill analysis if the board determines the voter is unaffiliated or missed the cut off the ballot can’t be counted.

And while Gross emphasized a roughly 90-day deadline for selecting one’s party, committee members were quick to note that undersells its impact — sometimes dramatically.

“Sometimes a primary is not held until September,” Rep. Mike Skindell, D-Lakewood, said, “particularly in municipal election years, so you’re looking nine months out.”

He added that during midterm cycles when the primary is in May, the candidate filing deadline isn’t until February. Skindell argued voters make their decision based on who is running, and asked if the sponsors would consider moving their cut off to 30 days after the filing deadline.

“I would hate to make a commitment to it right here at the moment,” Click said, but said he’d consider a different frameworks, offering 90 days before an election as an example.

Follow OCJ Reporter Nick Evans on Twitter.

Nick Evans

Nick Evans has spent the past seven years reporting for NPR member stations in Florida and Ohio. He got his start in Tallahassee, covering issues like redistricting, same sex marriage and medical marijuana. Since arriving in Columbus in 2018, he has covered everything from city council to football. His work on Ohio politics and local policing have been featured numerous times on NPR.


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