BILL MINOR: Open primary debate and history twists and turns

By Bill Minor

JACKSON – Once again, Mississippi voters, frustrated by not being able to cross party lines to cast ballots for their favorite candidates, are excited about installing an “open primary” election system that neighboring Louisiana has had since 1975.
Not that the Legislature hasn’t tried to scrap the state’s traditional closed primary system. In fact, four times since 1966, lawmakers have passed legislation to put candidates for all parties (and independents) on the same primary ballot without party designation and require a runoff between the two highest finishers.
For various reasons, none of the bills have become law. Mostly it’s been the Justice Department disapproved Mississippi’s proposed changes under Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Blacks objected it would block them running as independents in general elections after being historically shut out of the closed Democratic primaries.
After Republicans fielded their first major general election bid for governor against Democrat Paul B. Johnson in 1963, Johnson complained he had to run “three primaries” to be elected. He advocated installing the open primary to virtually eliminate GOP candidates as a threat to Democrats.
Oddly, when the 1966 Legislature passed an open primary bill, he vetoed the measure, saying “it is an inopportune time for radical changes in our election procedures.” Lawmakers narrowly failed to override his veto, injecting the race issue by emphasizing existing law would let independent black candidates win without a majority vote.
Open primary backers four years later under Gov. John Bell Williams pushed through a bill which Williams signed to install the plan for the 1971 elections, contingent on Justice Department approval. Some Mississippi Republicans by then decided the system could help elect GOP candidates and wanted the Nixon Administration to okay the state’s law. An unsigned note on a White House letterhead to Jerris Leonard, Justice’s civil rights chief, asked him to clear the law. (When I uncovered the note among court papers in 1980, I wrongly attributed its authorship to state GOP leader Clarke Reed, a big Nixon friend. Later, after Clarke chastised me, I discovered that Fred LaRue, a Mississippian then working in the White House, wrote it.)
But the best story came from the bizarre set of events which followed Leonard’s seeming approval of the law. Civil rights attorney Frank Parker challenged Leonard’s response before a three-judge federal court panel in a January, 1971, hearing in Biloxi (I was there). The judges found Leonard’s response was too vague and ordered the measure placed in “a state of suspended animation” until Justice either clarified its position or entered a formal objection. Ironically, the 1970 Mississippi law stayed in “suspended animation” until the U.S. Attorney General wiped it off the books some years later.
Bill Waller had become governor when the Legislature again tried to write an open primary into law in 1975. Waller recently declared in an interview that the open primary system would have been the answer to voter frustration seen in the Aug. 2 primaries. Waller failed to note that he had vetoed the 1975 bill sent to him by the Legislature.
It must be said, however, that in his veto message, Waller alluded to the fact the 1970 law was still technically pending in the Justice Department after four years, and added it would be “useless to pass duplicate legislation.” That didn’t keep the Legislature in 1979 under Cliff Finch from passing another open primary bill and sending it up to Washington for clearance. This time Justice in no uncertain terms rejected it.
When William Winter became governor in 1980, he let it be known he had a veto pen ready if any open primary bill hit his desk. No legislative movement for the election plan has gained momentum since.
Two strange outcomes under Louisiana’s open primary law have been attitude changers toward the system here in Mississippi – the surprise first primary election of upstart Republican Buddy Roemer in 1987 and ex-Klan Wizard David Duke winning a general election spot against Edwin Edwards in 1991, when bumper stickers backing the corruption-shrouded Edwards declared “Vote for the Crook…It’s Important.” Edwards won overwhelmingly.
Syndicated columnist Bill Minor has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him through Ed Inman at edinman@earthlink.net.