LLOYD GRAY: Primary purity or voter choice?

LLOYD GRAY

LLOYD GRAY

Explicit in Chris McDaniel’s challenge of the Republican senatorial runoff result is that only self-identified Republicans should be able to vote in a Republican primary.

Let pureblooded Republicans select Republican nominees and hard-core Democrats pick who runs in the general election under the Democratic banner. Anything else is a defilement of the process, the argument goes.

But this has never been the rule in Mississippi, and it’s unlikely that the average Mississippi voter would buy into the idea of having to formally register as a Republican or Democrat before being allowed to vote in either party’s primary, as some states require. Mississippians tend to want to vote for who they want to vote for, and many even resent the restrictions they face in having to choose one primary over the other when there are candidates in both they’d like to vote for on the same day.

As Mississippi’s chief elections officer, Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann has been in the middle of the electoral firestorm that erupted when Thad Cochran edged out McDaniel in the Republican runoff after courting Democratic votes. Hosemann told the Daily Journal editorial board on Friday that while a majority of party activists on both sides may now favor a “closed” primary and even party registration, never before seen in Mississippi, he suspects ordinary voters still want the freedom to choose which primary they vote in on a case-by-case basis.

Hosemann isn’t saying where he stands at the moment, but he’ll soon name a diverse committee that will make recommendations to the 2015 Legislature on any changes in state election law. He’s not limiting their study to primaries, but would also like the panel to look at early voting and online voter registration.

Whether the Legislature makes any changes in 2015, Hosemann’s goal is to have a “healthy discussion” that gets legislators’ views in the open.

Interestingly, one of the first places any “white paper” recommendations produced by Hosemann’s committee would go would be to the Senate Elections Committee. The chairman of that committee is Chris McDaniel.

McDaniel has been in that position for three legislative sessions and has never proposed any changes in state election laws that would require party registration or restrict primaries to self-declared party members.

In fact, McDaniel himself voted in the 2003 Democratic primary because there was a local candidate he wanted to support. McDaniel, a self-described lifelong Republican, did then what a majority of Mississippi voters have done at one time or another, and what most would likely prefer to be able to do in the future as well: Look at the races, decide which they most want to vote in and who they most want to vote for (or against), and choose which primary to vote in on that basis.

There are three basic options for conducting elections:

• An open primary in which every candidate regardless of party appears on the same ballot, and if no one gets a majority, the top two finishers, again regardless of party, compete in a runoff.

• Closed primaries in a system in which voters register as Republicans, Democrats or independents and only registered party members can vote in their party’s primaries and independents have to wait until the general election to participate.

• A mixed system, like Mississippi’s, where no party registration is required and people are free to choose which primary to vote in as long as they don’t vote in the first primary for one party and then the second primary of the other party in the same election.

My guess is if you laid out these options to Mississippi voters, No. 1 – the open primary – would be the favorite. But too many politicians and party activists dislike it for a variety of reasons, so it’s unlikely at this juncture to get serious consideration.

Mississippi’s current system, imperfect as it is, may be the best of the three. It allows the parties a basic structure to offer candidates and for their candidates to compete, but it doesn’t lock in the electorate and overly restrict choices. Dare we say it, it’s the kind of reasonable compromise that seems so out of fashion in politics today.

Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or lloyd.gray@journalinc.com.