BILL CRAWFORD: Tea Party-fearing Legislature may close political primaries

June 30, 2014 

Once upon a time, Mississippians were fiercely independent. We didn't want any outsiders telling us what to do. We also wanted to "vote for the man, not the party."

That has changed and is about to change more.

Chris McDaniel's campaign to unseat Thad Cochran depended heavily upon outsiders telling us how to vote -- former Gov. Sarah Palin, former Sen. Rick Santorum, former Congressman Ron Paul, former TV host Chuck Woolery, the Club for Growth, the Tea Party Express and more. McDaniel and his Mississippi supporters welcomed these outsiders with open arms.

That McDaniel got almost 50 percent of the vote twice shows times have changed. We used to be more like, say, Oklahoma.

When Palin and company showed up in the Oklahoma GOP primary, retiring conservative Sen. Tom Coburn said, "we don't need outsiders coming out telling us how to vote."

Palin's candidate got 34 percent of the vote.

Cochran won the run-off, in part, because Mississippi has an "open primary" system. "Open primary" means we don't make voters register by party. We are free to vote for the Democratic "man" in one election, then the Republican "man" in another and vice versa. The only restriction is we cannot vote in one party's first primary then the other's run-off primary. If we don't vote in any first primary, though, we can vote in any party's run-off.

For years Republicans pushed to open primaries even more. We wanted a non-partisan open primary like Louisiana has. In Louisiana all candidates -- Democrats, Republicans, Independents, whatevers -- run together in one election. If no candidate gets a majority, a run-off is held. This eliminates party primaries and substantially reduces election costs.

The U.S. Department of Justice allowed this for Louisiana, but never for Mississippi. With the Voting Rights Act pre-clearance rule dead, now would be the time to get it done.

Or not.

McDaniel and friends are crying foul, claiming "liberal Democrats" and other "non-Republicans" turned out in the run-off and gave Cochran the victory. They want it so only "real Republicans" can select Republican nominees.

To get that, Mississippi would have to move to a "closed primary" with party registration. This would allow only registered Republicans to vote in Republican primaries. Same for Democrats. Voters not choosing a party affiliation could not vote until the general election.

While this may sound reasonable for congressional or statewide elections, it would play havoc with city and county elections where party affiliation is often unimportant. It would limit "vote for the man, not the party" to general elections.

My bet is our "vote for the man" primary system is about to die. Expect our Tea Party-fearing Legislature to throw a bone to McDaniel supporters by passing some version of closed primaries next year.

We're gonna become fiercely not independent.

Bill Crawford (crawfolk@gmail.com) is a syndicated columnist from Meridian.

The Sun Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service