Last Thursday, the Texas House Elections Committee heard public testimony regarding HB 1635 by Republican State Representative Dustin Burrows. Among other provisions, HB 1635 would ensure that a candidate’s application for a place on a primary ballot cannot be rejected for any reason other than those specified in the Texas Election Code.
In laying out his bill, Representative Burrows stated that the goal of his legislation is to “ensure that the primary voters of the state of Texas are the ones who decide who the nominee is on the ballot.”
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Last month, The Texas Voice reported that Republican Party of Texas Chairman Matt Rinaldi opened the door to moving away from nominations by primary to nominating by a caucus or convention system on a podcast interview entitled “Why Do Texas Republicans Suck?” Rinaldi also discussed other states where party leaders could deny primary ballot access to prospective candidates.
A host of grassroots leaders within the Republican Party appeared at the hearing to testify supporting HB 1635.
James Dickey, who formerly served as State Chairman of the Republican Party of Texas and Chairman of the Travis County Republican Party, was among the first to testify for the bill. “The only thing worse than the state dictating to the parties on what to do would be to have a renegade chair individually deciding what people were allowed to do,” said Dickey.
Dwayne Wright, who serves as Chairman of the San Jacinto County Republican Party and Executive Director of the Texas Republican County Chairmens’ Association, told the committee, “I support this bill because I believe the election process should be objective, not subjective.”
David Luther, the Chairman of the Waller County Republican Party and a former member of the State Republican Executive Committee, stressed the importance of allowing voters to decide the Party’s nominees. Luther also expressed concern that allowing county chairs to reject candidate applications for reasons not specified in state law would place an unfair burden on them.
Testifying on behalf of the Texas Republican County Chairmens’ Association, Luther stated, “County chairs who have contacted me consistently have had questions about the idea of them being put in the position of having to limit ballot access or reject applications for ballots. This is not a fair burden to place on these volunteers across the State of Texas.”
“We are here to support the Party and our nominees. We are not here to make decisions on whether nominees should be nominees,” added Luther.
Susan Johnson, a Republican Precinct Chair in Montgomery County, testified to her concerns that one faction within a political party could exercise veto power over candidates. “The possibility of a group of precinct chairs voting to prevent a candidate from being allowed to run is not theoretical. It is a reality in Montgomery County.”
In addition to her testimony, Johnson also provided committee members with a podcast transcript where some Republican activists in Montgomery County discussed the possibility of denying primary ballot access to a candidate for Sheriff in Montgomery County.
Eric Opiela, a Board Certified Legislative and Campaign Attorney who has served in various leadership positions in the Republican Party over the last two decades, gave detailed testimony about the proper legal authority of a State to regulate a primary election.
Citing cases such as Utah Republican Party v. Cox, Opiela laid out the legal argument against the narrative being promoted by some that a political party has an absolute right under the First Amendment to conduct its activities, including nominating candidates, without any restrictions. “As the Supreme Court has said, the freedom to associate is not absolute. Generally, states may regulate political parties, including matters of internal party governance, if the regulation is necessary to the integrity of the electoral process,” said Opiela.
In explaining his support for HB 1635, Opiela also discussed how conflicts between state law and party rules could expose Party leaders to litigation. “This bill is not about who the candidates are—this is about who the deciders are—is it the members of each Party or a room of people who have never appeared on a ballot to stand to answer to the grassroots. It allows county chairs and state chairs to do their job without fear of litigation having to choose between state law and the opinions of others who have said they, not the voters get to choose.”
Before the hearing, the Texas Federation of Republican Women sent its members a message supporting HB 1635. The message stated, in part, “While it might seem that such a bill should not be necessary, confusion caused by recent changes to political party rules require this clarification” and “HB 1635 seeks to reinforce that it is the law, not an individual’s discretion, that determines whether a candidate’s name appears on the ballot.”
While most of the public comments submitted regarding HB 1635 supported the bill, a handful of commenters expressed opposition.
Wes Brumit, the former Chairman of the Harrison County Republican Party who resigned in protest of what he viewed as Donald Trump’s insufficient conservatism, wrote, “Speaking against the bill. As a former county chair, this bill would harm the locally elected county executive committees that do a great job in vetting local candidates. State officials should stay out of party business.”
Rachel Horton, a current member of the State Republican Executive Committee and Precinct Chair in Parker County, was also among those who submitted comments in opposition to HB 1635.
“I cannot be present, but I hope these comments may be added to the record. I write in opposition to the bill as laid out. It purports to address issues within a private political party. Party’s have made great strides towards privatizing primary elections processes so that the Party’s manage the selection of our “champions” for the general elections in November. If the primaries need to be closed then we need to have the opportunity to close the primary. But it should not be the states responsibility to police the primary process. Thank you,” said Horton.
During the 2022 primary, Horton was a paid staff member of Chad Prather’s unsuccessful attempt to unseat Governor Greg Abbott. Prather, who advocated for a Texas secession referendum and sold merchandise with slogans such as “American Until Texas Secedes” during his campaign, earned just 3.8% of the vote.
Party primaries in Texas are funded with taxpayer dollars through the Texas Secretary of State’s office. The budget bills currently under consideration in the Texas legislature propose appropriating over $16 million for primary elections in the next biennium.
HB 1635 was left pending by the committee.