Texas GOP opens pathway to closed party primary


A pathway to closed primaries has been paved by the Republican Party of Texas (RPT) after it nixed every reference to state election code from its slate of rules. In its proceedings this week, the Rules Committee, the body tasked with establishing the temporary and permanent bylaws by which the party is governed, passed its slate of temporary rules without any reference to state election code. 

Texas GOP Chairman Matt Rinaldi said that its rules are still consistent with requirements in state code, but the specific citations were removed to “ensure the party isn’t subservient to the legislature.” This is an attempt to make the party its own organization not sanctioned specifically by state election code.

“We want it to be clear in the rules that we’re not adopting the Texas election code so if the legislature tries again to subvert party processes, we are prepared,” Rinaldi added.

The maneuver is a direct response to legislation passed last year.

Last session, the state legislature passed House Bill (HB) 1987, a bill requiring Texas GOP officials to resign their position before running for another elected office. It applies to the party chair and vice chair positions and members of the State Republican Executive Committee. The legislation was tacitly aimed at then-RPT Chair Allen West, who launched an unsuccessful primary challenge to Governor Greg Abbott.

During the fight over that bill, legislators tried to slip into a conference committee substitute a requirement that the Texas GOP chair and vice chair be elected in party primaries rather than at the convention by delegates. After a long weekend of back and forth, the resign-to-run provision was passed and the other provisions were scrapped.

Striking the election code references is intended to prevent anything like that from happening again, and to remove a legal barrier to the party’s ability to challenge a law passed by the legislature governing its processes.

But based on precedent in other states, the maneuver also paves a path for the party to close its own election so that Democrats may not cross the party line to influence their opposite’s primary.

In Texas, any registered voter may vote in either party’s primary — a system called “open primaries” — with the only restriction being that a voter who cast a ballot in one party’s primary may not vote in the opposite party’s runoff election.

Texas is one of 22 states with open primaries, which allow Democratic voters to vote in Republican primaries and vice versa.

It is a requirement of state code and the party’s rules cite election code in various places — making it a state-sanctioned organization. By striking those provisions, the RPT Rules Committee unties the party from state election code.

Those in support hope it provides enough defense in court for the party to close its primary itself without legislative action.

A decade ago, the Idaho GOP closed its primary by successfully suing the state over law requiring open primaries. The lawsuit spurred a change in state law that set closed primaries as the default, which could be opened if chosen by the individual party. The Idaho Democratic Party kept its primary open to any voters.

The state restriction on how the party may operate its own election was ruled unconstitutional by a federal district court.

A closed primary is some time off and not among any proposal at the convention, but this action opens the door for a likelier shot at that option down the road, however far off that may be.

In the 2020 adopted slate of rules, there are eight references to the Texas election code. They include a prohibition of proxy voting, a removal-worthy offense by a county chair and the procedure for that removal, setting the procedure for county and district conventions, and the “Clean Hands Rule” which bars individuals convicted of election law violations from serving as an officer of the GOP.

How those items are re-established in the rules without the code has yet to be ironed out. 

Rinaldi and those who backed this maneuver say it is meant to “allow the party to be the party, and not the legislature to be the party.”

On Tuesday, Rinaldi testified in front of the Rules Committee in support of the effort, making the case by saying, “We have a right to free association and we have a right to run our party as we so choose.”

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