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The entry of Gene Taylor in the Republican primary and Bill Marcy in the Democratic primary this June has some around Mississippi wondering if the state's primary system needs changing.

Taylor, a former Democrat Congressman in the 4th District, made his unexpected switch last week, which given the timing and handling many Republicans view it purely for political expediency recognizing that he could not win in South Mississippi with a Democrat noose around his neck.

Marcy's switch is a slightly different story; he was once a Democrat but ran to the right to coddle the Tea Party, attempting to capture disgruntled conservative voters when he challenged 2nd District Democratic Congressman Bennie Thompson as a Republican.  Now Marcy wants to be the Democrat nominee for U.S. Senate in 2014.

Party switchers are often openly welcomed when the candidate or office holder's sincerity isn't in question.  We have seen that numerous times in recent memory with a slew of Democrats around the state announcing their switch to the GOP.

The problem comes when the intent of the switch is obviously not out of an ideological epiphany or in reaction to no longer agreeing with one party's principles and values; the switch is merely to slap a label behind a name in hopes of appearing more viable at the ballot box.  Such motivations fuel the debate over open versus closed primaries.

Mississippi has open primaries, meaning voters of any affiliation can vote in the primary of any party without declaring or registering with either.

The main concern with open primaries has long been "crossover" voting, Democrats voting in a Republican primary (or vice versa) to influence the nominee in hopes of putting their candidate or party in a better position heading into the general election.

This has been a point of speculation in this year's Mississippi U.S. Senate race.  You could make the case that Democrats will crossover to help hand Thad Cochran a win since they cannot stomach the alternative or rather ensure that Chris McDaniel defeats Cochran to give their candidate of choice, Travis Childers, a better shot in November.

Some Mississippians feel a closed primary system would help prevent such political antics.

Closed primaries only allow voters who are registered with a party to vote in that party's primary.

According to fairvote.org, 18 states have a version of closed primaries and in another 5 states Republicans have closed their primaries while Democrats continue to operate open primaries.

The notion of closed primaries is not new in Mississippi.

In 2006 state Rep. Chuck Espy challenged Congressman Thompson in the 2nd District Democratic primary.  Espy, back then, was a little too conservative for the Mississippi Democrat Party's liking so they filed a lawsuit in federal court seeking the right to exclude voters who didn't share their "interest or persuasions." They wanted closed primaries 8 years ago.

Thompson supported the move to close the primary, telling the Jackson Free Press at the time, "I had no real role other than supporting it. I didn't get the lawyer. I didn't participate in any of the discussion that went on, but I have an opinion, and I'm convinced, like most states in this country, that when you have a party primary, it ought to be limited to people that belong to the party and not Republicans. That's a fact in most states. And the courts have even ruled in the past that if somebody wants to limit party primaries they can. With or without closed primaries you can vote for the best candidate in the general election."

Thompson continued, "Why, if I were a card-carrying Republican, would I want to vote in the Democratic primary in the first place unless I wanted to influence who would be the Democratic candidate? It's not their business to pick the Democratic candidate. If you want to pick a Democratic candidate, then be a Democrat."

Many are asking similar questions this year, but on the opposite side of the aisle.

I asked current Mississippi Democrat Party chairman Ricky Cole his thoughts on open versus closed primaries today in light of Gene Taylor and Bill Marcy's switches, both entering other party primaries, and with the potential for crossover votes in the Cochran/McDaniel race.

Cole wrote in an email, "I don't believe at this point in the development of our political system in Mississippi that we need any major changes in the election process. We need to focus over the next few years instead on civic engagement, civic literacy, and far greater dialogue between citizens and policymakers."

Translation: Democrats don't plan to revisit closed primaries anytime soon.

But in all honesty, why would they?  

As the minority party in Mississippi they are in a prime position to influence Republican nominees if they can encourage enough crossover voters in upcoming primaries.  In essence they can sabotage Republicans at the ballot box and never have to raise a dime, fire a shot, or get their hands dirty.

Mississippi Republican Party chairman Joe Nosef responded to the question I asked Cole by saying, "We've become a majority Party in an open primary system. Regardless if the law was changed or not, we feel our candidates and message would still reach voters across the political spectrum."

Whether or not crossover votes will ultimately impact the 2014 Senate and Congressional races remains to be seen, but one thing is sure: Republicans stand to lose far more than Democrats with open primaries.

If things go awry (especially in the 4th District) Republicans in the trenches could conceivably start agreeing with Democrat Congressman Bennie Thompson's old call for closed primaries.  

Now wouldn't that be something?

Posted March 7, 2014 - 10:45 am


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