SID SALTER: Open primaries remain elusive goal in Mississippi

By Sid Salter

After each round of elections in Mississippi – and particularly after the party primary elections when courthouse-to-statehouse elections roll around every four years – there goes up a great hue and cry for open primaries.
Open primary proponents say they don’t want to vote for the party, they want to vote for the man (or the woman, as is applicable). But there exist substantial misunderstandings regarding just what current Mississippi law allows and what obstacles exist to moving toward a true “open primary” system.
By definition, an “open primary” does not require party affiliation in order for voters to vote for partisan candidates. In other words, it’s a type of direct primary open to voters regardless of their party affiliation or lack of one. Voters need not publicly declare their party affiliation but must choose to vote for candidates of only one party.
So in that narrow sense, Mississippi indeed has an “open primary” for statewide and local elections. Voters are free to choose to vote in either Democratic or Republican primaries, but can’t vote in both and can’t cross the party line in second primaries if they voted in the first primary.
What people who really want to “vote for the man (or woman) rather than the party” really want is a nonpartisan “blanket” primary in which all candidates from all parties appear on one ballot and the two highest performing candidates proceed to a runoff election, regardless of their party affiliation.
By definition, a closed primary is a primary in which only registered voters of a particular party may vote for candidate of that party. Only Democrats can vote for Democrats, Republicans for Republicans, etc.
Louisiana uses the nonpartisan blanket primary for state and local elections and has since 1976. Washington State has used that process as well since the U.S. Supreme court ruled in 2008 that nonpartisan blanket primaries were indeed constitutional following a protracted legal challenge.
In June, California passed Proposition 14, which adopts essentially the same voting process for that state – allowing blanket primaries for most state and federal races other than the presidential campaign.
With Democrats still holding sway in most county elections and in the House of Representatives and Republicans holding the state Senate and seven-of-eight statewide elected offices, there are compelling reasons that Democrats would resist true nonpartisan blanket primaries. Despite the fact that state Democratic Party chairman Jamie Franks has expressed support for “open primaries” and the ability to “vote for the person of their choice,” such a course would likely bring lawsuits if there were a serious effort to enact nonpartisan “blanket” primaries in the state.
First and foremost, it’s unlikely that the U.S. Justice Department’s Voting Rights Division would approve such a change in Mississippi. Voting law changes still require Justice Department preclearance and the likelihood of that being granted is virtually nil. Secondly, incumbent Democrats – particularly in key swing counties – would resist such a change for pure political self-preservation.
In California, Republicans opposed the move to nonpartisan “blanket” primaries along with Democrats and four minor political parties. But Proposition 14 passed with 56 of 58 California counties in favor of the measure.
Nonpartisan “blanket” primaries come with one caveat. Voters have to become more involved in the process since the choices are more complex than simply picking which table one steps up to at the polling place. Look for this issue to get kicked around a lot more in Mississippi over the next few months.
Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at 662-325-2506 or ssalter@library.msstate.edu.