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The South Carolina Republican Party is looking for a way to make its candidates even more conservative

This ballot question could be a stepping stone toward closed primaries in South Carolina.

Republican National Convention: Day Two
South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster speaks at the Republican National Convention.
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Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

South Carolina Republicans will vote on a question Tuesday that could bring the state one step closer to a closed primary system. The outcome of the ballot initiative is a very preliminary stepping stone in this process, but it nevertheless could result in candidates who are more conservative getting the Republican nomination in the state.

Voters in the Republican primary will get asked a question about whether people should be able to affiliate with a political party when they register to vote. As things currently stand, voters in South Carolina don’t need to identify themselves as Democrats, independents, or Republicans. Any voter can participate in any party primary that piques their interest, leading to a fair share of “crossover” voting.

“It really is fun in South Carolina because you actually have to think about the voters you’re trying to communicate and target,” South Carolina Democratic Party Chair Trav Robertson told the Charleston Post and Courier. “It’s prevented a lot of the craziness we see in other states. I’d very much hate to change that characteristic of South Carolina.”

By limiting Republican primaries to Republican-identified voters, parties put a hard limit on who gets to nominate their candidates. Critics are concerned that a move like that may lead to Democrats and independents getting shut out of important election decisions in the GOP-leaning state.

Republicans have long angled for closed primaries in South Carolina, and see this system as a way to push for more conservative candidates and thwart potential Democratic meddling in their races. Democrat Dimitri Cherny’s decision to run in the Republican primary against Rep. Mark Sanford is a recent instance of Democratic engagement that has especially raised conservatives’ ire.

Lt. Gov. Kevin Bryant, in his campaign materials earlier this year, described the move toward clear party affiliations as a means to “dismantle the RINO-crat majority that is guarding the gate for liberalism.” Republican Party Chair Drew McKissick has also argued that wrangling a more definitive list of party members would be beneficial for voter mobilization. “No political party or organization or campaign at any level is any better than the list that they have,” he said in an interview with the State.

As Winthrop University political scientist Scott Huffmon told the Post and Courier, this tactic is a common one employed by the party in power as it tries to preserve its agenda. Democrats have pushed for closed primaries in other states as well.

”The fear that they clearly have is they are losing control of their own party. It’s completely asinine,” Robertson said regarding the recent Republican efforts. “When you control nine state constitutional offices, six of seven congressional seats, and hold a majority in the state House and a super-majority in the Senate, what the hell are you afraid of?”

The potential pitfalls of a closed primary

The debate between open and closed primaries is a perennial question for state parties. Do they allow only openly identified members of the party to choose candidates that adhere to their values? Or do they open it up to a potentially broader swath of the population — picking more generally palatable candidates?

Closed primaries in South Carolina could mean that Democrats and independents effectively have no input on the candidates that ultimately advance to different positions, since many statewide roles have overwhelmingly gone to Republicans in the past. Because South Carolina is such a red state, the Republican primaries are often key indicators of which candidate will ultimately take the top spot in races for positions like governor and attorney general.

The South Carolina Republican Party says this advisory question isn’t about cutting anyone out of the primary process, but rather deepening engagement with its voters. “Political parties need to be able to do a better job of connecting with and engaging like-minded individuals in the political process, and partisan registration makes that easier,” said McKissick, according to an Associated Press report.

McKissick isn’t wrong: Research has previously shown that voters who actively identify with a particular party are more likely to be engaged in campaigns and elections. Historical data has also shown, however, that the outcomes of a closed primary system versus an open one, tends to lean more heavily to a party’s base.

In a Post and Courier op-ed, the leaders in two independent voter groups detail some of the pitfalls that they see accompanying closed primaries, including the potential of heightened polarization between Republicans and Democrats. Additionally, they note that a closed primary could skew the ability of voters of color to participate in pivotal election decisions.

“This polarization could have devastating consequences for black communities and poor communities that would become isolated and even more disempowered,” they wrote. “It would also mean that South Carolina citizens who are independents and not registered in a party would be paying taxes for a primary system in which they were barred from voting.”

Idaho offers a possible case study

There’s a whole spectrum of possible primary setups, and South Carolina is one of 15 states that currently has a completely open primary, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

It’s far from the only state that’s toyed with the idea of shaking up its primary system.

Officials in Idaho and Mississippi have mounted efforts to go from open primaries to closed ones, while Colorado and Utah are among those moving in the opposite direction. In 2011, the Idaho Republican Party won a lawsuit that gave it the ability to run a closed primary.

“We do believe that it is our right to essentially let Republicans chose Republican candidates, Democrats choose Democrat candidates, as these are the candidates who will be our standard bearers, carrying the torch for the Republican Party in November,” Jonathan Parker, the executive director for the state’s Republican Party, told Boise State Public Radio.

It’s only been a few election cycles since the decision, but some results from Idaho’s recent primary seemed to suggest that Republican candidates were, in fact, skewing more conservative. “You have a closed primary so only people who are registered as Republican are going to show up. It’s the more motivated, more fervent voters,” said College of Idaho political science professor Jasper LiCalzi. “Who do they tend to be? They’re going to be more extreme, and when you’re talking Idaho extreme, that’s being much more to the right, and that’s what we see.”

Voter responses to the South Carolina primary question will be used to advocate for a state House proposal related to the issue of voter affiliation, said McKissick. Although a potential shift to a closed primary is a long ways away, how people vote on Tuesday could help determine if it will inch closer to fruition.