Topeka Independent voters will be allowed to cast ballots in the Republican primary election on Aug. 3, Kansas GOP chairman Dennis Jones said Friday.
Although a long-standing state law allows only members of a political party to vote in the party's primary, they now can be opened to nonmembers because of a recent federal appeals court decision.
Secretary of State Ron Thornburgh had asked the parties to make a decision by the June 10 deadline for candidates to file. Jones made his announcement a day after GOP members of the state's congressional delegation urged that the party's primary elections remain closed.
"The participation level is what I'm concerned about," Jones said, citing the national GOP platform of increasing the number of voters going to the polls. "Inclusion is our goal."
The parties had the option of keeping their primaries closed, opening them to all voters -- even members of other parties -- or allowing participation by party members and unaffiliated, independent voters, who number about 400,000 in Kansas.
July 19 is the last day to register to vote or change party affiliation for the August primary. Currently, there are 715,724 Republicans, 421,876 Democrats and 398,778 independent voters registered in Kansas.
Democratic Chairman Larry Gates said his party's executive committee would meet Monday to discuss the primary and may poll other party leaders before making a decision.
Democrats and Republicans began holding primaries in Kansas in 1908. The contests have always been closed, though unaffiliated voters have been able to participate by declaring an affiliation at the polls.
In April, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver struck down an Oklahoma law that limited participation in that state's primaries to party members and unaffiliated voters. The appeals court said a state cannot restrict a party's ability to define who may participate in choosing its candidates.
Jones' decision drew criticism from Attorney General Phill Kline, a Republican, who said the 10th Circuit decision's merely prohibited state law from requiring closed primaries. Kline said the decision should have been made by party as a whole, and not in a "unilateral action" by Jones or any one official.
Jones said after consulting with Kansans and elected Republicans, he felt he had the grounds to make his decision.
U.S. Rep. Todd Tiahrt, a conservative Republican from Wichita, spoke with Jones before his decision, said Chuck Knapp, Tiahrt's spokesman.
"Unfortunately, very few Republicans had that opportunity," Knapp said. "The bottom line is (Tiahrt) believes registered Republicans should choose Republican nominees."
Kansas recognizes four parties: Democratic, Libertarian, Reform and Republican. Parties obtain recognition by submitting petitions signed by enough registered voters to equal 2 percent of the total votes cast in the last general election for governor. Currently, that figure is 16,714.
Once recognized, a party can place its nominees directly on the general election ballot, whereas independent candidates have to circulate petitions and collect signatures.
While Republicans and Democrats have primaries, Libertarians and Reform Party members nominate their candidates at conventions.
Jones said he hoped Democrats and Libertarians would respect the process and participate in their own primaries. Nothing in state law prohibits voters from switching party affiliation.
"I trust the electorate in Kansas," Jones said.
He said the party had limited resources to solicit unaffiliated Kansans to vote Republican, but that candidates would be encouraged to extend the offer during campaigns.
The 10th Circuit case is Andrea L. Beaver, et al., v. Michael Clingman, et al., No. 03-6058.
On the Net:
10th Circuit opinions: http://www.kscourts.org/ca10/
Secretary of state: http://www.kssos.org
Kansas Republican Party: http://www.ksgop.org
Kansas Democratic Party: http://www.ksdp.org