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In Texas, Democrats can vote in the Republican primary — and vice versa. How do party leaders feel about it?

“If you’re voting in a gubernatorial election ... it’s a drop in the bucket," says one Republican strategist.

A "vote" sign in a yard in west Austin on March 6, 2018.


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Hey Texplainer: I’m a Democrat, but I voted in the Republican primary. How do party leaders feel about that?

Texas voters are going to the polls Tuesday to choose their parties’ nominees for a slew of statewide and local elections. Or, if they’d rather, they can weigh in on the other party’s primary runoffs instead.

In Texas, primaries are open. That means it’s not uncommon for people to cast ballots in the opposite party’s primary. A Republican who wants a say in which Democrat challenges Gov. Greg Abbott in November could cast a vote in the Democratic runoff race — as long as the voter didn’t cast a ballot in the March Republican primary. The same is true about a Democrat who wants to weigh in on a local GOP runoff.

How party leaders feel about the practice depends on the reasons voters do it.

Sure, some Democratic voters say they do it strategically — in the hopes of getting a more moderate candidate through the GOP primary. But Jeffrey Larson, the secretary of the Republican Liberty Caucus of Texas, suspects that’s “more rare than most of my Republican colleagues think it is.”

Larson said an outsized number of people in the state’s Republican Party worry about Democrats influencing their primary elections. During the GOP’s upcoming state convention, Larson said, it’s likely they’ll propose a resolution to advocate for closing the primaries.

“They believe that if people really aren’t invested or care about the party ... [and] come into our elections and elect candidates that don’t really represent us, then it dilutes the Republican brand,” Larson said.

But Republican strategist Brendan Steinhauser said the tiny percentage of Democrats voting “strategically” isn’t likely to have too big an impact — especially in statewide races.

“If you’re voting in a gubernatorial election ... it’s a drop in the bucket, but if you’re talking about a local judge ... that could have a bigger impact,” Steinhauser said.

Before the March primaries, some public education advocates called for Democrats to cross over and vote for moderate Republican candidates. It didn’t have much effect: Their most visible target, the socially conservative Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, defeated the advocates’ favored candidate, Scott Milder, by more than 50 percentage points.

The more common reason Democrats vote in the Republican primary, though, is that they don’t have as many options. The primary ballots include local elections, like for constable, county judge or sheriff. In areas dominated by one particular party, voters might cross over simply to have a say in one of those races.

“In my county, all the local races are Republican. Judges, sheriff, district attorney,” Martha Mims of Williamson County wrote in The Texas Tribune’s Facebook group, This is Your Texas. “If I want to have a say in local government, I have to vote in the Republican primary.”

This happens most often in rural areas, said Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa. He thinks Democrats voting in Republican primaries in March is one of the main reasons why a rumored “blue wave” didn’t appear.    

“There’s large parts of Texas, in the rural areas primarily, where you have very few local Democrats ... and it’s between Republicans of different shades,” Hinojosa said. “Obviously, that’s not something we want to hear, but you can understand why voters are voting that way sometimes.”

Unlike in the March primaries, Hinojosa said he thinks a “blue wave” will be evident in the November general election, as people who voted in the Republican primaries return to voting for their own party. “They do come back,” he said.

Democratic Party leaders say they hope Texans won’t feel like they have no choice but to vote for Republicans for much longer.

“For the longest time, it was hard for Democrats to recruit people to run in Texas races, and many times, Democratic primaries would have just one candidate or no candidates,” Heather Buen, a precinct chair for the Tarrant County Democratic Party, wrote in This is Your Texas. “I believe those times are beginning to change ... Hopefully that changes voter behavior.”

Bottom line: Neither party likes the idea of Democrats “strategically” voting in GOP primaries. Republicans don’t want Democrats influencing their electoral outcomes. And Democratic leaders wish they had enough viable candidates and competitive races to keep their own voters from straying.

Note: This story was inspired by a discussion on education policy happening now in our Facebook group, This is Your Texas. Sign up here to join the conversation.

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