BY: Sid Salter
Q: In the party primaries, how many people decide who will have the opportunity to represent a half million Mississippians in the U.S. House of Representatives?
A: About 15,000 voters. 20,000 on a good day. 30,000 with a monster turnout. In a crowded field, a little over 5,000. One percent.
Bottom line? A primary candidate can advance to a runoff with from 5,000 to 15,0000 votes. Don’t think so?
First District Congressman Roger Wicker won his seat as follows: a) Wicker got 7,156 votes or 26.6 percent of the total 26,881 total votes in the March 1994 GOP primary. He got 11,905 votes or 53.1 percent of the total 22,432 GOP primary runoff votes two weeks later. In November 1994, Wicker garnered 80,553 of 63.1 percent of the total 127,d745 general election votes cast.
In 1992, only 31,031 voted in veteran Congressman Sonny Montgomery’s last contested Democratic primary.
The absolute bottom line in Mississippi congressional primaries? 15,000 votes is enough votes to virtually guarantee a primary runoff spot and possible enough to win the party nomination outright. In a crowded field, 5,000 votes may be enough.
And we get a situation in which less than ten percent of the population of a congressional district chooses the nominees to represent 100 percent of the district. That’s not representative government the way our founding fathers intended and it can’t be written off to mere voter apathy.
It’s beyond apathy about a particular election. It’s apathy about government as a whole and the old verities of patriotism and love of country.
Mississippians will go to the polls March 12 to choose the nominees for all five of the state’s congressional seats and one of the state’s two U.S. Senate seats and from top-to-bottom, there are lots of new names on the ballot.
One could hardly blame even the most tuned-in, interested voter for having trouble picking the players without a program. There are 13 candidates on the primary ballots in the Third District alone and one independent candidate waiting in the wings in November.
In the presidential primaries, it gets even worse. There are 14 candidates on the respective party ballots.
New names. New faces. New slogans. New bumper stickers.
But what about the old faces? And more importantly, what about us as voters? Historically, we in Mississippi don’t have a great deal of turnover in our congressional offices. Congressional district policies remain a fuzzy spot in Mississippi and who can blame us for not being very good at it? We haven’t had a lot of practice.
Could it be that some of us, a frighteningly large number of us just don’t believe the process matters anymore?
A recent poll conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation, The Washington Post and Harvard University indicates that if Mississippi voters meet the norm across America, 76 percent of us can’t name both our current U.S. Senators, 67 percent can’t name their district’s current congressman, 37 percent don’t know their current congressman’s party affiliation and 25 percent don’t even know if their current congressman is a man or a woman.
Soak that in.
Sonny Montgomery has served Mississippi for 30 years in Congress and served us well. The poll result indicates that two-thirds of the people he represented couldn’t name him and less than five percent of them went to the polls to vote for or against him in his last contested primary race.
That statistic is discouraging beyond words. Why?
Because that kind of voter apathy leaves the door wide open to allowing any well-financed, well-organized single-issue candidate to essentially buy the election through his or her ability to target a small group of one, two, three percent of the population of the district and secure their party’s nomination or at the very least a spot in a party primary.
The legacy of that voter apathy doesn’t know party or ideological boundaries. It afflicts conservative Republicans. It afflicts Democrats.
There are higher percentages of participation in high school homecoming queen elections across Mississippi than there are in congressional primaries and perhaps that reality says something about our society’s values.
And it is that concept of party primaries as political beauty contests and the November general election as “the real election” or “the one that counts” that contributes to low turnout in the primaries.
Sometimes, it works out fine. The First District Congressional race in 1994 is proof of that fact.
Out of a hotly-contested primary free-for-all in both Democrat and Republican parties, the voters were left with four qualified, capable candidates in Wicker, Grant Fox, Tim Ford and Bill Wheeler.
But if voter participation in the primaries continues to decline, mainstream voters may find themselves participating in general elections between party nominees chosen by ideological extremists from the far left and the far right that don’t reflect their values, don’t share their views and don’t represent them when they get to Congress because they owe their political souls to the single issues that helped them in the first primary race.