By Charlie Mitchell
The Constitution of Mississippi cordially invites any person at least 18 years of age who has been enrolled as a voter for at least 30 days to go to polls and cast a primary ballot next week.
A larger number will decline the invitation than will accept it.
There are myriad reasons why individuals choose not to vote in state and local elections – perhaps as diverse as the electorate itself. But there are also over-arching factors – those that apply to everybody.
One is the migration toward federal control. Mississippians, who vote in larger numbers in presidential and congressional elections than in contests for sheriff or the local school board, seem to sense that not much is controlled locally anymore.
The changes are endless.
Jails must be maintained to federal standards and deputies follow procedures established by federal courts. Even the tires on patrol cars must meet federal specifications. This is not a bad thing, but it is the reality. Sheriffs used to make the rules, in a matter of speaking. Now their duty is to follow the rules.
Same with schools. The authority of a local school board member once encompassed matters ranging from the qualifications of teachers to the quality of cafeteria food. Again, it’s not a bad thing, but there are federal rules governing everything from the wattage of light bulbs to the placement of water fountains. School board members find themselves serving as compliance officers. They don’t study the quality of daily instruction children are actually receiving. They study the federal standards and try to avoid having funds withheld for not completing the proper forms.
This extends to the state level. Mississippi has an insurance commissioner whose role was to set standards for companies wanting to sell any type of policy. Now the idea is largely to make sure federal basics are met. New health insurance legislation will essentially pass complete control of that topic to Congress.
Members of the Legislature are in a similar situation. Mississippi can set policies or pass laws on fewer matters these days.
Another over-arching factor many voters face is a dearth of choice, especially in legislative races.
Consider this: There are 52 Senate districts in Mississippi. There are Democratic candi-dates in 33, but 24 of the 33 are one-candidate “races.” There are Republican candidates in 41 of the 52 districts, but 25 of the candidates have no primary opponent.
The sum: Statewide, there are contested Senate primaries for fewer than half the seats.
The pattern is the same in the House, which has 122 districts. There are only 25 districts with more than one Democrat on the ballot and only 24 with more than one Republican.
For all the talk about a new political awareness due to the economy and everything else, no Republicans are trying to get elected to 11 of the Senate seats or 41 of the House seats and no Democrats qualified in 19 of the Senate districts or 35 of the House districts.
Just as there are myriad factors affecting turnout, there are many reasons for sparse ballots. A regrettable one is how in many states, but especially in the South, district lines have been drawn in the interest of the candidates as opposed to voters.
Three, four or five columns could be (and have been) written about that alone, but it’s really a turnoff when so many voters find out they really don’t have a choice. These days, the redistricting powers-that-be draw some districts to be Republican and others to be Democratic. Republicans don’t bother running in Democratic districts and Democrats don’t run in Republican districts. A consequence is that there’s no exchange of ideas, no discussion and little debate.
The marquee race next week, of course, is the Republican Primary contest between Sen. Billy Hewes and Tate Reeves for lieutenant governor. The reason for its primacy is that there is no Democratic candidate, meaning next week’s winner will lead the state Senate and serve in what is arguably (and was before Barbour) the most powerful position in state government.
But even if marginalized by the ever-expanding influence of federal laws and policies, the down-ticket offices do need qualified, capable, honest public servants. Even if ballots for the Legislature are slim, it’s still worth taking the time to vote.
It’s a precious right, too precious to disregard.
Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at Box 1, University, MS 38677, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.