BILL MINOR: Time could be right for Mississippi open primary law

JACKSON – Mississippi’s “open primary” law, similar to Louisiana’s wherein candidates from all parties run in the same primary, with the two highest finishers vying in a general election, ironically was left in a state of “suspended animation” in January, 1971 when a three-judge federal panel found the Department of Justice Voting Rights clearance too ambiguous.
The judges said it would stay there until the DOJ clarified its opinion, which didn’t happen in time for 1971 state elections, so the state went back to the party primary system. It was not until a few years later when a new U.S. Attorney General yanked the earlier DOJ response.
The open primary has had a checkered career going back to 1966 when it was first enacted by the Legislature aimed at putting the Republicans out of business. Gov. Paul B. Johnson, Jr., after endorsing the idea, vetoed the bill. Several times later, the state sent open primary bills up to the DOJ for clearance, but they were rejected on grounds that it prevented black Democrats from bypassing primaries and running as independents in the general election.
Republicans, who first opposed the idea, changed their mind when a Republican won the governor’s office under the system in Louisiana, and several GOPers have won since.
What brought the open primary to mind was a telephone call I had from a lady in DeSoto County who said she was unhappy that when she appeared at her voting precinct and asked for an independent ballot, she was handed either a Democratic or Republican ballot.
She explained that she was a political independent who had moved South several years ago from Chicago. “and I’m tired of not being able to vote in primaries.”
I explained to her that what she was looking for was an open primary election system where independent candidates ran in the same primary with both Democratic and Republican candidates. I told her that Mississippi three times had enacted open primary laws, but for various reasons the laws hit a snag in being cleared by the U.S. Justice Department under the 1965 Voting Rights Act and never became operative.
Her call begs the question: Maybe the time has come when Mississippi is ready to eliminate its primary election system and install the open primary, assuming the Department of Justice now would look more favorably on the law.
You hear lots of complaining that we have too many elections in Mississippi – obviously, only a small percentage of voters participate in primaries these days. So, maybe if we had the open primary system, at least we would have a lot fewer elections, and people would come out to vote.
This writer in a 1980 column had revealed that a secret note on White House stationery from Mississippi GOP leader Clarke Reed to Jerris Leonard, then the head of DOJ’s civil rights division, asked Leonard not to object to the 1970 open primary law sent up by Mississippi for clearance under the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Reed was then an influential figure in President Nixon’s Southern Strategy.
The note came to light among documents released in a federal court case challenging Leonard’s participation as attorney for Mississippi in seeking approval of a the state’s 1979 open primary act. A three-judge court in Washington, D.C., had ruled that Leonard could not represent the state because of his involvement in a similar case when he was a government attorney.
Louisiana won approval in 1975 by the Department of Justice of its open-primary. That’s always made Mississippi wonder why it couldn’t get approval of a similar law, since the two neighboring states are not that far apart in the makeup of their electorates. And some don’t believe that Mississippi is perpetually marked with Original Sin.

Bill Minor has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him at P.O. Box 1243, Jackson, MS 39215-1243, or e-mail at edinman@earthlink.net.

Bill Minor