Tennessee’s open primary system allows any registered voter to vote in the primary of their choice. An annoying by-product of the system is crossover voting, though this foolish gesture to create mischief has rarely had an impact on who gets elected. I was reminded of this on Super Tuesday.
My wife Babs and I arrived at the church we’ve attended and loved for decades, which also serves as our precinct’s polling place, and ran into a fellow Nashvillian we’ve known for years. We chatted for a minute and went inside to vote. As Babs and I were leaving, we were happy to have voted for our candidates and left hand in hand, feeling patriotic and encouraged by the beautiful weather. We saw our friend waiting for us in the parking lot. A lifelong Republican, he gleefully told me that he’d voted in the Democratic primary for Bernie Sanders. When I quizzically asked him why, he told me with a laugh that he wanted to bolster the candidate he felt was most “beatable” by President Donald Trump.
His motivation felt like a stark contrast to the fine feeling of civic pride we’d just left with. It got me thinking. Tennessee’s open primaries have allowed crossover voting as long as we’ve had this method, but it’s still irksome when someone willingly wastes a vote maliciously — as FairVote calls it, “party-crashing.”
When someone crosses party lines to wreak a tiny bit of havoc with their one vote, they’re stating that every single election down-ballot is inconsequential. Party delegates, party executive committee members, city commissioners, property assessor, criminal court judges, chancery court chancellor and Metro trustee were on Nashville’s ballot. With their ballot, crossover voters are expressly saying that their juvenile desire to have a funny story to tell is more important than choosing the candidates to represent their party and hold these important positions.
There have been concerted efforts by Republicans to make a collective impact — Rush Limbaugh’s 2008 “Operation Chaos” is an example. It was designed to nudge then-unknown Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton, the candidate seen by Limbaugh and other participants in this schoolyard prank as the more formidable Democratic candidate. Whether their efforts made a measurable electoral difference is debatable, but the fact remains that Obama did indeed win the Democratic nomination for president, and history was made. If anything, it may be that all the attention from Limbaugh’s “Operation Chaos” fed the groundswell of Obama’s first campaign. The failure was predictable, according to those who study voting patterns — who say maliciously intended crossover voting is substantially diluted by votes cast sincerely by members of each party in their primaries.
The crossover voting conversation has prompted calls to limit primaries to only party-affiliated voters. That would leave out independent voters who intentionally remain unaffiliated. It would also exclude voters who vote for the most compelling candidate and don’t necessarily follow their party line in lockstep. Open primaries also give someone of a minority party a legitimate voice in local elections. These elections are decided at the primary level, by and large, when there are multiple candidates in a single party and only one candidate — or no candidate — from the minority party. Open primaries are the most transparent and accessible, but they depend on voters’ honor to refrain from maliciousness.
I was so proud of Nashville after Super Tuesday in so many ways, but our voting tallies again demonstrated that we’re a city with balanced perspectives. Despite fevered rhetoric that’s deepened political divides, Nashville remains evenhanded in our election results. Moderate candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden earned more votes in this primary than Bernie Sanders did in either this primary or 2016.
Also worth noting is that Trump received fewer votes in Nashville’s 2020 Republican primary than in 2016, when Trump barely beat Sen. Marco Rubio — by about 1,000 votes in a crowded field (much like the Democrats’ field this year). Yet, with no competition to speak of in 2020, he won even fewer votes in Nashville? That’s either from maliciously intended crossover voters or from legitimately lukewarm GOP voters. Either way, it doesn’t spell “resounding success” for Trump.
Biden’s strong showing in Nashville and Trump’s comparatively lukewarm GOP support indicate that Nashville continues to support candidates who ignore partisan extremes in an effort to govern efficiently and compassionately. Crossover voting may be dirty politics’ oldest trick, but it’s also the dumbest.
Bill Freeman is the owner of FW Publishing, the publishing company that produces the Nashville Scene, Nfocus, the Nashville Post and Home Page Media Group in Williamson County.