JACKSON A movement to change the state’s traditional party primary system so candidates can run in both party primaries is underway in the Legislature.
Known as “cross-filing,” the system would skirt around the oft-tried “open primary” idea which is now in effect only in Louisiana elections.
Republican Sen. Bunky Huggins of Greenwood, responding to what he says is a strong demand in his area for a different party primary system, has authored a bill to install a primary election plan where candidates can cross-file. A candidate would be able to choose if he wants to have his name on both the Democratic and Republican primary ballots at the same time.
There was some indication that Gov. Kirk Fordice could be pushing for some version of allowing voters to cross party lines in primaries.
Last summer voters not only in Huggins’ area but elsewhere around the state were evidently upset that they couldn’t vote, especially for local officers, for Democrats in some cases and also some Republicans in the same primary. Longstanding Mississippi election law prohibits anyone from voting in both party primaries.
Of course, in the general election, those who win the party nominations in the primary are on the ballot together and a voter can split his ticket if he wants without any penalty.
The main difference between a cross-filing system and the open primary is that the latter requires all candidates, regardless of party affiliation, and also independents, to run in the same primary. Should no candidate get a majority, then the two highest finishers regardless of party automatically go on to the general election.
In the cross-filing system, the candidate has the choice of getting on both party ballots. However, to win a party nomination and go on to the general election, he would have to get a majority vote either in the first primary or in a runoff.
Ostensibly, a candidate could win the nomination of one party and not the other, and still go on to the general election in the cross-filing system. Importantly, under this system, independents could still get on the general election ballot, which is not possible under the open primary.
Three times over the last 20 years Mississippi passed open primary laws and sent them up to the U.S. Justice Department for clearance. Each time it met with a rejection, largely because of the state’s long history of having denied blacks their voting rights. Also, Justice didn’t like the possibility that black independent candidates would be adversely affected by the open primary idea. Oddly, however, in 1974 Justice approved an open primary system for neighboring Louisiana.
Sentiment in Mississippi for getting the open primary system here has waned considerably as a result of the Louisiana experience since it began the open primary. Particularly did interest here decline in 1991 when former Klan Wizard David Duke got enough votes in the open primary to go on to the general election with Edwin Edwards.
The possibility that Duke could win the Louisiana governor’s office frightened so many voters that it even prompted a pro-Edwards bumper sticker: “Vote for the Crook It’s Important.”
Evidently the open primary tends to produce two top finishers who, because of their appeal to a certain segment of the voters, can muster a sufficient minority of the vote to go on to the general election. It also seems to get two extremes into the general election, and moderate, middle-of-the-toad candidates get left by the wayside.
That turned out to be the case in the recent 1995 Louisiana governor’s race, when voters were left in November with only two choices at the extreme opposite ends of the political spectrum. Coming from nowhere on the far right, wealthy oil man Mike Foster, the eventual winner, garnered enough votes to lead the multi-candidate primary ticket.
Foster had gained some notoriety as the sponsor of a bill in the Legislature legalizing the carrying of concealed weapons. He also backed a number of fundamental arch-conservative issues. From the opposite end of the political spectrum, Cleo Fields, a black liberal Democratic congressman, had wedged into the finals by getting the biggest chunk of the black vote.
By then it was no contest, and Foster won in a landslide.
The cross-filing primary plan seems to have fairly good support among a number of Mississippi lawmakers, even some Democrats, especially those who have a pro-Republican county in their district.
In the House, Rep. Pat Miller (D-Walls), the vice-chairman of the House Apportionment and Elections Committee, said that while she personally rather likes the cross-filing idea, she has found no consensus for it among House Democrats.
Legislative staff researchers have been scanning election laws in other states to find if any other state now has the cross-filing system. One thing that is known is that California once had it, but not anymore.
In the event the Mississippi Legislature would approve some version of a new party primary system to allow crossing party lines, it would still have to pass muster with the Justice Department.
And where Mississippi is concerned, the past could rise again to haunt the state.
Bill Minor is a syndicated columnist who has covered Mississippi politics since 1947.