How Republican Party Chair Jeff Essmann keeps a straight face arguing for his party’s right to keep Democrats from voting in a Republican primary, when he knows that Republican county officers have been getting themselves elected to Democratic Party offices, is beyond me.
This hypocrisy aside, in my opinion they can have a closed primary as long as they pay for it and I don’t. Currently, taxpayers like you and me—that is, the government—pick up the tab for both parties’ primaries. If the Republicans don’t want the public riff raff voting a Republican primary ballot, they can buy the primary process from them, pay for it themselves, and have done with it.
The whole issue really stems from a Ravalli County state senate primary race in which the wrong Republican won. It was a squeaker—39 votes—and the only reason he could have won, the Pure Republicans contend, is that Democrats voted the Republican ballot out of malice.
It is wrong for Democrats to take unfair advantage of a political legality, it appears. The stranger thing is that in the previous election cycle, officers of the Ravalli County Republican Party ran for, and won, seats as officers of the Ravalli County Democratic Party, but somehow that’s different.
To fix their problem, various Republican county parties are suing the secretary of state hoping to get a court decision that says they can have a closed primary. The Republicans of Sanders County initiated the lawsuit, while at the same time two officers of the Sanders County Republican Party had gotten themselves elected as officers of the Sanders County Democratic Party.
Gallatin County had a similar scenario. This raises a complex but important question: with so many Republicans infiltrating the Democratic Party, how do the Republicans know whether it was actual Democrats who voted in the Republican Primary or just the Republican Democrats, so to speak.
Essmann went to great lengths in a recent opinion piece to establish the idea that political parties are organizations whose First Amendment rights include the right to associate with whom they want to, and to not associate with those they don’t want to. I’ll give him that point with no argument, since he worked to hard at making it seem reasonable.
But then Essmann writes that he wants, “the right of political association free from government interference or mandated direction.” First, let me hark back to the fact that it is governments that cover the expense of running the election, so Essmann is saying, “Leave us alone but pay our bills.”
Second, Montana’s version of that meddling government is mostly run by Republicans, so why don’t they just pass a bill to allow closed primaries? The simple fact is that, whether the governor would sign it or not, they don’t have enough Republican legislators who would vote to pass it. They do have a dilemma, don’t they!
Curiously enough, the remedy they are seeking is judicial intervention, and as I remember activist judges have been maligned by Republicans since the dawn of the separation of powers.
Finally, it is this group of pious zealots in their quest for ideological uniformity in the Republican Party that has slandered the reputation of upstanding Republican candidates, willfully broken Montana campaign laws by failing to disclose required financial information, and illegally spent thousands of dollars to defeat Republican legislators who have the courage to hold independent opinions.
If the price of a closed primary means an end to that kind of maliciousness, I’m all for it.
Jim Elliott is a former chairman of the Montana Democratic Party and a former state senator from Trout Creek.