LLOYD GRAY: Open primary would be simpler and less costly

Here’s an advisory for Tuesday’s municipal elections around Northeast Mississippi: First, remember that you must decide whether to vote in the Democratic or Republican primary. You can’t vote in both.
Second, this means that if you like a candidate running for mayor in one party and a candidate running for council or board of aldermen in another, you’ll have to choose which one you think needs your vote the most. One of them can’t get it.
Third, if you vote in one primary on May 5 you can’t switch over to the other party’s runoff on May 19.
Fourth, the primary winners will be on the general election ballot on June 2, and at that point – finally – you can vote for whoever you want.
To those who follow elections closely, this is all familiar and second nature. To most everybody else, it can get confusing and frustrating, even though it’s the way elections in Mississippi work at every level.
Occasionally you’ll hear people in this state describe themselves as a “registered Democrat” or “registered Republican.” They’re confused. There is no such thing in Mississippi.
We don’t have voter registration by party, which means that anyone can vote in either primary at any time – except for switching in runoffs. This state of affairs makes the existence of party primaries in Mississippi basically pointless.
The concept of party primaries in states where people register by party is that it’s the people who consider themselves members of a party who are selecting nominees for the general election. Voters registered as non-affiliated don’t even vote in primaries.
Yet for most of our history, the Democratic primary was the only game in Mississippi. Everybody ran as a Democrat, so winning the primary, as the phrase of old put it, was “tantamount to election.” That’s obviously no longer the case.
We’ve got a two-party system, but we don’t really have a true party primary apparatus that allows parties to operate as controllers of their own destiny. Instead, we have a system that creates the above-mentioned confusion and frustration.
It may make sense in a state where there is no party registration to have party primaries for president and Congress, where party distinctions are important. How much sense does it make in elections for mayor or alderman or sheriff or supervisor? Not much.
Mississippi needs an open primary. It would cut down the number and cost of elections and allow voters to choose among a full slate of candidates unencumbered by party divisions.
It works this way: Republican and Democratic candidates, along with independents, all appear on the same ballot. If no one gets an outright majority, the top two vote-getters compete in a runoff, whether it’s a Democrat and a Republican or two of either – or someone without party affiliation.
In Tupelo, for example, Tuesday’s ballot for mayor would include Democrats Kentrel Boyd and Doyce Deas and Republicans James Presley and Jack Reed Jr. instead of two separate ballots which voters must choose between. The top two, regardless of party, would be in a runoff if no one got a majority. The same would hold true for council elections.
The election would be over in a maximum of two rounds instead of three. Money would be saved – by both taxpayers and candidates – and voter fatigue reduced.
Party affiliation has so far been largely irrelevant in the Tupelo elections, but it will be very relevant on election day in deciding who wins and who loses because people have to choose between primaries.
The hard-shell party activists on both sides over the years have had their reasons for opposing an open primary based on their perceptions of how it would affect their party’s chances. Twenty or 30 years ago it was the Republicans who were for an open primary, but as their success grew they became less enamored of it. When Mississippi passed an open primary law in the 1970s, patterned after Louisiana’s, the Justice Department rejected it under the Voting Rights Act because it was seen as targeted at reducing the prospects of black candidates.
Political times have changed dramatically. What we have no longer makes good sense, if it ever did.
We should end the confusion and frustration by putting everybody on the same ballot. It’s simpler, easier to understand and less expensive, which in any arena other than politics would be more than enough to get it done.
Lloyd Gray is editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at 678-1579 or lloyd.gray@djournal.com.

Lloyd Gray/NEMS Daily Journal