COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – The overwhelming majority of Ohio voters are not affiliated with either major political party. Under a pair of proposed bills, they would have to declare allegiance to a party to vote in partisan primary elections.

Republican lawmakers have introduced three bills to close Ohio’s primary elections. On Tuesday, lawmakers sponsoring two of those bills introduced them as a way to increase voter confidence in elections and strengthen lawmakers’ understanding of the electorate.

The “Voter Registration Modernization Act,” sponsored by Sen. Michele Reynolds (R-Canal Winchester) in one chamber and Rep. Thomas Hall (R-Madison Township) in the other, would require voters to register with a political party at least 30 days before Election Day to vote in primary races. Unaffiliated voters would be able to vote only on issues.

Currently, Ohio has what the National Conference of State Legislatures considers a “partially open” primary. Unaffiliated voters can vote in any party’s primary they choose, and voters registered with a party can vote in the other party’s primary. Voters who cast a ballot in a party’s primary are considered to have changed their party affiliation.

Of Ohio’s nearly 8 million voters, 5.5 million are not affiliated with a political party, 1 million are registered Democrats and 1.3 million are declared Republicans, according to the Secretary of State.

Under Reynolds’ and Hall’s proposed legislation – Senate Bill 147 and House Bill 208 respectively – voters would be able to declare their party affiliation at any point, whether online, at a probate or common pleas court, or at polling locations.

“This ability to easily change parties will empower people to have freedom of choice and to be informed voters,” Reynolds said Tuesday. 

Reynolds said closing Ohio’s primaries would strengthen voters’ confidence in elections while safeguarding against “gamesmanship” of the primary system.

“Our primary elections should be about evaluating candidates on their beliefs, their leadership, their values and their goals, not playing political games,” she said.

The legislation would require voters’ political affiliations to be publicly available in the statewide voter registration database. Currently, voters’ political party affiliation is available on their voter registration history.

If Ohio closes its primaries, it will join seven states with fully closed systems. But the shift toward closing primary party races is opposed by voting rights organizations and civil rights groups that worry restricting primaries will disenfranchise a large swath of voters.

Nazek Hapasha, policy affairs director for the League of Women Voters of Ohio, said the league opposes closed primaries – or any restriction on voters’ ability to cast ballots in primary elections. She said in states dominated by a political party, primary elections are arguably more consequential than general elections, and voters should be free to vote, regardless of affiliation.

“Quite frankly, people aren’t married to their political party. They should be able to cross that line and participate in either party’s primary election,” Hapasha said.

To opponents of closed primaries, the high number of unaffiliated voters in Ohio speaks to the need for flexibility in the voting process. To supporters of closed primaries, the percentage of unaffiliated voters represents a statistic that sorely needs an update.

Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose said at the news conference Tuesday that closing the state’s primaries is a move that should have bipartisan support. Requiring voters to register with a party before voting in a party primary would make the state’s voting database more reflective of the political leanings of the state, he said, enabling political leaders to better pinpoint their voter base.

“It would help Ohio continue to maintain the gold standard of elections for the rest of the country,” LaRose said. “And it’s a bill whose time has come.”

Reynolds’ and Hall’s proposed legislation mirrors other bills to close Ohio’s primaries. House Bill 210, introduced by Reps. Jennifer Gross (R-West Chester) and Gary Click (R-Vickery), similarly requires new voters to register with a party 30 days before the primary election, but it requires current voters to register by the end of the calendar year before the primary.

While LaRose and other Republicans, including nine co-sponsors of HB 208, support the move to closed primaries, not every top Republican agrees. Gov. Mike DeWine said he doesn’t see “any urgent need” to change Ohio’s primary election system.

“I think the system works pretty well. I think we have a good election system in the state of Ohio,” he said.

SB 147 has been referred to the Senate General Government Committee, while HB 208 awaits its first hearing in the House Government Oversight Committee. LaRose, who is running for U.S. Senate in 2024, said he does not expect the legislation to become law before the 2024 primary election.