JACKSON — Back in the ’80s, the Mississippi Legislature passed an open primary law just like the one in Louisiana. For reasons no one understood, the U.S. Justice Department would not approve Mississippi’s law but did approve Louisiana’s.
What is an open primary? That’s when all candidates from both parties run in the same primary. If one candidate you like is a Democrat and another you like is a Republican, you can vote for both of them.
That’s how it now works in Louisiana, but not so in Mississippi. You have to pick one primary or the other, Republican or Democrat, so you can only vote for half the candidates.
This could be one reason Mississippi tends to end up a one-party state. That’s too bad. It’s always better to have healthy competition, especially in something as important as government.
At the moment two initiatives, Initiative 69 and 70, have been filed with the secretary of state’s office. Initiative 69, sponsored by Doll Swindle of Waynesboro, provides for open primaries for all elections. Initiative 70, sponsored by longtime state Rep. Joe Warren, is a hybrid plan calling for party primaries for statewide elections and then open primaries for local elections.
The local candidates won’t run until the general election, and if no one gets a majority, there will be a local election runoff three weeks after the general election.
Warren and his ally representative, Tommy Reynolds of Charleston, believe there is tremendous popular support for open primaries.
“Covington County is about half Republican and half Democrat. Somebody’s cousin may be running as a Republican but they still want to vote for Billy Bob for sheriff in the Democratic primary. They don’t understand why they can’t vote for both,” Warren told me over the phone. “I’m sick of it, and I know a lot of other people are, too, but the legislature has made it difficult to pass an initiative.”
That’s for sure. It takes 86,183 signatures to get an initiative on the ballot with at least 17,237 of the signatures from each of the five old 2000 congressional districts. That’s a huge hill to climb by the October deadline.
Reynolds is hoping that people will become aware of the initiatives and get on board.
“Why should a constable need to have an opinion on the national debt?” he told me. “People don’t feel like they have a chance to participate if they don’t vote in the right party. All voters should participate in who is sheriff or supervisor because they can have a big effect on your life.
“It’s just too partisan. You’re putting the local people in a terrible position right now. If people feel like they can’t participate, they aren’t going to pay attention to government.”
Warren told me how one couple decided that one of them would vote in the Republican primary and the other in the Democratic primary so as a couple they could vote for both the candidates they supported.
“George Washington, in his farewell address, said he hoped the country would not become dominated by two warring political parties. He had a lot of foresight,” Warren said. “There are two important groups against open primaries — the leadership of the Republican party and the leadership of the Democratic party. They like party primaries because it gives them control.”
Political parties are strange organizations, and they exist worldwide. They are private groups dedicated to controlling the government. They are so entrenched in the political process, government laws are written to protect their power. There is not a single word in our Constitution about political parties.
In the United States, there are a variety of primary configurations, some open, some closed and some in between.
Nine states have closed primaries, where you have to be a registered Republican or Democrat to even vote in them.
Six states have partially closed primaries where unaffiliated voters can vote in either primary, but a registered Democrat cannot vote in the Republican primary and vice versa.
Another six states allow you to vote for either party but consider your vote a form of registration after which you can only vote in that party.
Mississippi joins 11 states where voting in a primary does not cause you to be registered with a party, but all candidates are not in the same primary.
California, Washington and Louisiana have a primary with all candidates from all primaries on the ballot. The top two vote-getters then go to the general elections. In Louisiana, all candidates from all parties are on the general ballot and the top two vote-getters then go to a runoff. In Nebraska, state legislative races are nonpartisan, meaning they run without a party designation.
Opponents of the open primary argue that the open primary is unconstitutional. These opponents believe that the open primary law violates their freedom of association, because it forces them to allow outsiders to select their candidates. An opposing view is that political parties are not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution in any language, but voting rights of the individual are clearly defined.
Open Primaries is a national nonprofit dedicated to eliminating closed primaries. They claim 70 percent of Americans oppose closed primaries and 43 percent of American voters are independent.
Their motto is: You should not have to join a party to vote in a taxpayer-funded primary election!
Emmerich is editor and publisher of The Northside Sun in Jackson and president of Emmerich Newspapers.