Complaints spur open primary bills

By Bobby Harrison | NEMS Daily Journal Jackson Bureau

JACKSON – Two Northeast Mississippi legislators have filed bills that would allow voters to cross party lines in an open primary.
Sen. J.P. Wilemon, D-Belmont, said he filed the legislation this year after hearing complaints during last year’s elections from people who were upset they could not vote for a Republican in one race and a Democrat in another in the August party primaries. Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, said he has been filing the same bill since the 1980s
“There is even one or two Republicans I want to vote for … not often,” joked Holland when explaining why he filed the legislation.
In Mississippi, voters must decide whether they want to participate in the Republican or Democratic primary. Holland said an open primary “would dispel a lot of confusion and consternation among the electorate. It’s the right thing to do.”
Wilemon said he heard a lot of complaints last year about not being able to cross party lines in the primaries.
“I said if I come back I would have a bill to allow everybody to run together,” he said. Wilemon said he believes an open primary “would cut the cost of the elections by about 50 percent.”
Holland said now that Republicans control both chambers of the Legislature and are gaining strength in the state they might not want to change an electoral system where they are having success. But “they should,” Holland said. “It is what the people want.”
Senate Elections Chair Chris McDaniel, R-Laurel, whose committee most likely will get Wilemon’s bill, said, “I don’t have a strong opinion on the open primaries, but I will research it. I want to see what other states have done. I just want to do what is fair.”
It is not known yet who will chair the Apportionment and Elections Committee in the House. Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, is expected to make committee assignments this week.
Holland said in the early 1990s the state passed an open primary law, but it was rejected by the U.S. Department of Justice. Since then, other states have gone to an open primary system.
In some states, people must register and can only vote in that party’s primary. But in Mississippi, anybody can vote in any primary. A person just cannot vote in more than one primary during the same election cycle.
In the general election, voters are free to choose a mix of candidates from both parties.
bobby. harrison@journalinc.com