By Charlie Mitchell
OXFORD – At polling places last week, almost 300,000 Mississippi voters made the choice to cast their ballots in the Republican Primary. Compare that to 20 years ago when only 64,000 voted Republican to start eventual two-term Gov. Kirk Fordice toward a general election upset of incumbent Ray Mabus.
Local races still led most voters to select the Democratic Party ballot. Nearly 400,000 ballots were cast in the primary that is sending Hattiesburg Mayor Johnny DuPree and Clarksdale attorney and developer Bill Luckett into a runoff.
The trend is undeniable. More Mississippians identify Republicans with the conservatism they cherish. And unlike many other states, third-party and independents have not gained a toehold.
Incidentally, the total turnout – right at 700,000 of the 1.9 million registered voters – is almost exactly the same as 20 years ago.
Last week as in every primary cycle in Mississippi, prospective voters were discouraged and confused by this state’s convoluted process.
It’s hard to blame them. The two-ballot system may make sense from a strategic perspective, but it doesn’t make sense to a voter whose church choir director is running for circuit clerk as a Republican and neighbor is running for county supervisor as a Democrat. “Stupid” is the word they use.
Compounding having to pick a party ballot is that Mississippi has open registration. Any voter in any cycle may choose either party’s ballot.
That’s actually been the subject of litigation in several states, including Mississippi, because of the “devilment” that can result if enough voters align to advance a weak candidate to face their favorite.
In theory, a primary is the same as a heat in track meet.
But in reality being a Republican or Democrat has very little to do with serving as a sheriff, court clerk or school board member. Very few decisions made by boards of supervisors have anything to do with party ideology. Supervisors pave roads, lure employers, raise money to pay for county business and try to keep taxes low. There’s nothing particularly “Republican” or “Democratic” about their roles.
Every primary cycle, voters can be heard asking, “Why can’t we just put everybody on the same ballot and have runoffs until someone gets a majority?”
The answer is that’s what Louisiana and many other states do and there have been efforts to have “open primaries” in Mississippi.
But that system has problems, too.
Specifically, when there are a lot of party candidates in primaries their support can become so splintered that “out-of-the-mainstream” candidates can advance artificially. That’s what happened to embarrass Louisiana, also 20 years ago, when former KKK official David Duke became a finalist for governor. Duke could not and did not have nearly enough support to win. But his slice of the vote was enough to advance when there were 13 candidates for governor on the open primary ballot.
The shock of what happened in Louisiana was enough to convince the courts that one-ballot primaries were dangerous and should not be allowed in Mississippi. And the notion of changing Mississippi’s two-ballot system – confusing as it is – quietly went away.
Some will say it was the absence of any Democrats seeking the lieutenant governorship – making state Treasurer Tate Reeves’ win over Sen. Billy Hewes decisive – that helped fuel a five-fold increase in voters choosing the Republican. Probably correct.
In any event, DuPree nor Luckett can take comfort in the fact that 100,000 more voters chose to vote as Democrats.
It will mean nothing in the general election when one of them will face Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, the GOP’s nominee.
Most Mississippians are consistently conservative. DuPree and Luckett are both pretty conservative, too. But more and more Mississippi voters see Republicans as the best party to carry the banner of their beliefs. The Democratic Party will have an uphill fight to convince voters otherwise.
Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at Box 1, University, MS 38677, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.