Stating a case for an open primary

Published 9:39 am Friday, August 7, 2015

Covering Tuesday’s elections inspired me to start doing a very dangerous thing. Thinking.

I was wondering why Mississippi, like its neighbor to the west, Louisiana, doesn’t have an open primary system.

This is a question I’ve pondered over the 21 years I’ve lived in Mississippi, and one I’ve asked a whole lot of people. And no one yet has given me a satisfactory answer.

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I guess I was spoiled growing up in Louisiana. The state switched to an open primary system in 1971, the year Edwin Edwards took office. The reason he pushed the open primary was simple enough. Until 1971, only Democrats held party primaries in Louisiana, while Republicans, who were almost a non-entity at the time, held nominating caucuses and ran against the Democratic nominee in the general election held usually in November.

After Edwards took office, he swore he was not going to go through the rigors of party primary elections while his Republican opponent basically stood by the wayside, and the open primary in Louisiana was born. The state Legislature passed it, the Justice Department approved it, and it became a law. That day, I became an independent.

Now party heads will argue this, but the way the primary system is set up in Mississippi, it prevents someone from voting for the candidates they want, especially if they have favorites running under different party banners, say a supervisor candidate running as a Democrat and a sheriff candidate you like running as a Republican.

You don’t give party affiliation when you register to vote, but you can’t walk into a voting precinct, say you’re an independent and expect to be handed a primary election ballot.

You have to give a party preference when you show up at the polls to vote. And if you favor candidates in both primaries, you end up forsaking one candidate so you can vote for the other. In other words, you don’t really get to vote for the people you want to vote for.

In Louisiana, it’s simple. Everybody runs at once. You vote for the candidates you want, regardless of party affiliation. It also makes elections more fun, because you get all kinds of people running for office. That makes it entertaining.

I’ve asked party officials about open primaries in Mississippi, and keep getting a dance and excuses why it can’t be done here, but as far as I know, I can’t remember reading where anyone has tried. And the biggest excuse that the Justice Department would oppose it is questionable. If the feds approved it for Louisiana, which was under some of the same restrictions as Mississippi, why not for Mississippi?

Voter dissatisfaction is at an all time low, as shown by the low turnout for the primaries. It might be an open primary would increase voter interest and get more people interested in running for office.

A voter should be able to walk into a precinct, ask for a ballot without having to choose a party and cast a ballot for the people they want.

It might mean better government.

About John Surratt

John Surratt is a graduate of Louisiana State University with a degree in general studies. He has worked as an editor, reporter and photographer for newspapers in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post staff since 2011 and covers city government. He and his wife attend St. Paul Catholic Church and he is a member of the Port City Kiwanis Club.

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