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Can Texas voters loyal to one party cause chaos in the other party's primary?

In Texas, you can vote in either party’s primary. Could that affect who ends up on the general election ballot?

By Jill Ament, Texas Standard
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If you’re loyal to a particular political party, have you – or a fellow Democrat or Republican – at least thought about voting in the opposing party’s primary? Maybe for a person you think would be a weaker candidate in the general election? Or maybe just to mess with the other team?

Texas is one of 15 states that hold open primaries. This means you don’t have to declare a party affiliation until you get to the polls. This had some Texas public radio listeners wondering:

“If I vote in the 2018 Democratic primary, can I then vote in any possible primary run-off elections for Republicans?”

Simply put: No, you can’t.

“If there’s a runoff, you can’t then cross party lines and vote in a runoff of the opposite party. You either don’t vote, or you vote in the party primary that you voted in to begin with,” says Jim Henson, with the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas.

And, Henson says – based on recent polling data – it looks like there could be important primary runoffs on both sides of the aisle this year.

Henson also notes having to vote in the same party in the runoff as you did in the primary may be a disincentive for Texans who want to participate in what’s known in the political science world as strategic voting. Which brings us to another question posed by a listener:

“Is it common for voters who regularly vote in one party to switch to voting in the other party primary in order to curve results?”

To tackle this question, let’s first take a step back in time – 10 years ago – to the 2008 presidential primary election season.

Conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh attempted to convince his listeners to take part in what he pegged as a strategic voting campaign called Operation Chaos.

Limbaugh’s goal, says Henson, was to stir up trouble among Democrats: “Talk radio and conservative interest groups mobilized Republicans after the Obama nomination was locked to vote for Hillary Clinton in order to prolong the conflict … in order to damage the Democratic party somewhat.”

Operation Chaos was not very successful.

“Post-election research suggest [Republicans voting for Clinton] happened probably more than we might’ve imagined would happen under normal circumstances, but in most cases certainly not enough to affect the nomination process … or as we saw in the general election outcome,” Henson says.

Elizabeth Simas, a political science professor at the University of Houston, specializes in electoral behavior and political psychology. She says these cases of strategic voting don’t happen much in primary elections.

“Certainly, there are people who do it … but we just don’t see it happening as much as there’s potentially this fear for it to happen,” Simas says.

Simas says one of the reasons people don’t vote strategically is pretty simple. “I think some of it’s that voters are habitual and it’s what they know. It’s what they do. They go to their party’s precinct – they vote in their party’s election.”

Simas also says voters probably don’t want to lose out on voting for other candidates in their party’s primary, either. 

“Even if in the presidential primary, it’s tempting to go over and vote in the other party’s primary … there’s all those other offices too and so even though you really care about the presidential level, you maybe have lower level races where you do want to vote in your own party’s primary, and because you can’t split your ballot that way,” Simas says.

So voters thinking about crossing party lines during the primaries would do well to remember that they’ll lose the chance to vote in down-ballot races in the party they’re loyal to, and will only be allowed to vote in the primary runoff elections that reflect the same party they voted in during the March 6 primary.

This story is part of the Texas Decides series, in which public radio stations across the state answer questions about the 2018 primaries, voting and more.

Disclosure: The University of Texas and the University of Houston have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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