There’s a new way Democrats are “rigging” elections, according to some right-wing Texas Republicans: by voting in them. After Republican Jill Dutton won a special-election runoff for a North Texas state House seat against Brent Money on Tuesday night, Luke Macias, a GOP consultant, seemed incensed. Dutton, a former school board member, who had the backing of groups aligned with Texas House leadership, eked out a narrow 111-vote victory over Money, a lawyer backed by Governor Greg Abbott, Senator Ted Cruz, Attorney General Ken Paxton, and Defend Texas Liberty, which is overwhelmingly financed by West Texas oil billionaires Tim Dunn and Farris Wilks. Macias claimed that Dutton won only because she was supported by the deep-red district’s few liberals. “Over 500 Democrats voted early in the HD2 special. Over 9% of the vote,” Macias posted to X. “Can the D’s steal this special?”
Macias was soon joined by Money, who complained in his concession speech, without evidence, that Dutton “turned out over one thousand Democrats to steal this seat.” Paxton, who, as the state’s chief law enforcement officer, might be expected to take an interest in evidence, also joined the fray, writing, while offering no proof, that Democrats “voted to steal this election for Jill Dutton.” Texas GOP chair Matt Rinaldi and other party figures, meanwhile, had an idea for how to stop Democrats from “stealing” future races: they want to “close” Texas primaries, restricting them only to voters who declare allegiance to a particular party.
In Texas, voters do not have to declare a party affiliation when they register to vote. The state is one of sixteen in which anyone eligible can elect to vote in either primary. Republicans, including Rinaldi, have complained that this system allows Democrats to help defeat certain candidates—namely far-right Republicans—in favor of electing more centrist conservatives.
The Dutton race this week wouldn’t have been affected by a closed primary because it was a special election called without a primary for candidates of every party to enter. (The candidates were vying to fill a seat vacated by disgraced state representative Bryan Slaton—who, like Money, was backed by Defend Texas Liberty.) But other races theoretically could see an effect. Nikki Haley, the former governor of South Carolina who is seeking the GOP nomination for president, implied recently that her strategy in Texas is to convince a coalition of Democratic and independent voters to cast ballots in the GOP primary. Her goal is to cut into former president Donald Trump’s significant polling lead among likely Republican primary voters in the state.
But is there any evidence Democrats are choosing Republican representatives by voting for them? First off, let’s look at the Dutton-Money runoff, which, again, as a special election, would not have been affected by closing primaries. According to an analysis by Derek Ryan, a Republican data guru who maintained the Texas GOP’s voter file for two decades, early voters in the district who had cast ballots in the most recent GOP primary far outpaced ones who had voted in the most recent Democratic primary (a good sign of party affiliation in a state without registration by party). Republican primary voters, Ryan said, cast 5,120 ballots during early voting, Democratic primary voters cast 267, and voters who had no record of ever voting in a primary cast 578. Given that Dutton won by a mere 111 votes, it is possible that if not for Democratic early voters, she would’ve lost. But we don’t know how many of those former Democratic voters cast ballots for Money. And if Democrats did help swing the election for Dutton, they did so the small-d democratic way: by legally casting a ballot. “The fact that there are people out here saying the election was stolen from the candidate is preposterous,” Ryan said.
What about in races that actually are primaries and could theoretically be closed to Democrats? Do Democrats have a history of helping defeat far-right GOP candidates there? Probably not, Ryan says. During the 2022 midterm elections, only about 5 percent of all votes cast in the Republican primary were cast by Texans who had voted in at least one Democratic primary since 2014, according to his data. Crossover votes certainly didn’t have any effect on statewide candidates: Abbott won his primary by a margin of 54 percentage points; Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick prevailed by nearly 70 percent. Paxton, meanwhile, was the top vote-getter in his primary but was forced into a runoff. There, he won by 36 percentage points.
Ryan conceded that Democratic crossover voters could affect downballot races for the Legislature, but only in rare cases. He noted, for example, the 2022 race in House District 64, northwest of Dallas–Fort Worth. Incumbent state representative Lynn Stucky won against his right-wing opponent by a mere 94 votes. In that primary, Ryan said, there were 725 previous Democratic primary voters who cast ballots. In six other Lege races in 2022, the winner’s margin of victory was smaller than the number of former Democratic primary voters who cast ballots. But without knowledge of whom those voters supported, it’s impossible to know whether their votes were decisive. It’s also impossible to know whether these voters were even self-identified Democrats in the first place. There are many reasons a non-Democrat might have once voted in a Democratic primary: they were a Republican crossing over, much as Macias and others allege hoards of Democrats do; they were an independent voter more compelled by the liberal ticket in a given year; or they were then a Democrat but now align with the GOP.
The broader evidence also indicates that open primaries don’t change the electorate much. Multiple studies suggest that in states that moved from an open to a closed primary system, one in which only party registrants can vote, the identities of voters who ended up casting primary ballots hardly changed. And there’s little evidence that open primary systems attract more middle-of-the-road candidates to run or push them to victory more often. For a recent example, consider the Texas primaries in 2018. Ahead of Election Day, some public-education proponents urged Democrats to cross over and vote for more-centrist candidates in the Republican primary. A main target of this effort, Patrick, handily defeated the public-education advocates’ anointed candidate, Scott Milder, by roughly 52 percentage points.
This doesn’t mean primary reforms aren’t worth pursuing. Given that many Texas elections are decided in the primary instead of in the general election, there might be an even more small-d democratic way to run our elections going forward. (See, for example, Alaska’s relatively new ranked-choice voting system, which puts all of the candidates, regardless of political affiliation, on one primary ballot, on which voters select all of them in order of preference.)
While Texas’s open primary system does allow Democrats to vote in a Republican primary, and vice versa, the effect so far has been negligible. And given that Dutton wasn’t even running in a primary, right-wingers might want to undertake the more painful but potentially more constructive project of looking at their messaging to explain Money’s loss.