There are no gaping flaws in Mississippi elections. This Chris McDaniel stuff is just that: stuff.
All that’s required for honest elections is honest people. All that’s required to pervert the process is the absence of an ethical compass.
That said, Delbert Hosemann, Mississippi’s forward-looking secretary of state, says he will invite legislators to consider some options when they convene in January for the 2015 session. To that end, he has assembled a 51-member citizen panel to talk about options.
If there is a problem in election rules today it is that Mississippi voters are expected to follow an honor code, of sorts.
This point has been discussed, cussed and litigated.
Understanding it starts with the fact that Mississippians enroll to vote as voters; they don’t enroll as Democrat voters, Republican voters or independent voters. They are voters.
That means when a party primary is held — ideally so that Republicans can forward their best candidate to the general election and Democrats can forward their best person — there is no way to assure that only Republicans participate in the Republican process and only Democrats participate in the Democrat process.
Any registered voter can vote in either primary, but not both. The door is open to sneaky moves, such as choosing to vote for the other party’s weaker (or nuttier) candidate to knock a stronger opposing candidate out of the competition.
The larger issue, however, is that this freedom to pick a primary ballot confuses many voters, especially when local and state primaries are held at the same time. A voter who knows she wants to see the local sheriff, a Democrat, re-elected might also have a favorite Republican running for governor. She will be frustrated when she has to pick one ballot or the other.
But while this is confusing, it’s also liberating. If Mississippi registered by party and our voter had enrolled as a Democrat, she could not have voted in the Republican primary (unless she had remembered to change her registration before primary day). Her ability to cast her ballot where she felt it was needed the most would be lost.
Registering by party is one of the options Hosemann’s panel will study. It’s used in a lot of states, mostly in the North and West, and especially where the two-party system is strong. That’s still kind of a new thing in the South where, until recent years, voters favored Democrats in state and local offices and Republicans in the White House.
The opposite of registering by has come to be known as a “top two” system. (The name comes from the fact that the top two candidates usually tally more than half the votes and advance to a general election. However, if one does get more than 50 percent, he or she is the winner outright. And, if it takes three to for their votes to total more than 50 percent, all three advance to the next round.)
Mississippi flirted with this about 25 years ago, but backed away because the U.S. Department of Justice took the position it was a contrivance to hurt minority voters and candidates. With the potent punch of the 1965 Voting Rights Act purged by the U.S. Supreme Court two years ago, it might be time to look at this arrangement again. After all, it’s used in Louisiana and their record on race is not exactly pristine, either. (Actually, Louisiana used this approach starting in the 1970s, changed to “closed” party primaries in 2004, but eight years later went back to what some consider a free-for-all.)
The “top two” approach lists all primary candidates for all offices, regardless of party, on the same ballot. Voters going down the ballot can do just as they do in general elections — pick a Democrat in one contest and a Republican, if they so choose, in another.
Under this system, if a political party wants to put all its support behind one candidate, it must have a method to refuse to list more than one and that method must take place outside the election process.
Objectively, “top two” sounds the most democratic. It best serves those who insist they are far more interested in the candidates than in party ideologies or platforms. Parties, of course, don’t like it.
Mississippi, even before November voting, has had an election year many would like to forget. It’s unlikely the Legislature will feel moved to make any big changes in election laws next year, but the Hosemann team will offer them options. There are plenty.
Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at Box 1, University, MS 38677, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.