On Thursday, two Republican candidates for Ward 4 alderman in Starkville sat in a cramped conference room flanked by the city clerk, members of the city election commission and the Republican Municipal Election Committee.
The candidates, Kevin Daniels and Austin Check, entered the day tied at 92 votes each with four affidavits left to be processed. Ultimately two of those ballots were accepted and counted for Daniels. Two were rejected because the addresses on the ballots and the pollbooks showed the voters lived outside the ward.
During the process of confirming the ballots, one affidavit that was accepted came from a voter who several people in the room — candidates included — recognized as someone with a yard sign displayed for Mike Brooks, the Democrat running in that ward. The old saying goes, “Signs don’t vote,” but I don’t think Mr. Daniels left Thursday feeling he could rely on this particular voter on June 8.
To be clear, the vote was affirmed as legal, and the voter did nothing improper. In Mississippi, we have open primaries, meaning you can vote in any primary you want regardless of what party you identify. In this state, you’re not even given the option to identify your party on your voter registration, which makes closing primaries impossible.
This, though, needs to change.
Party primaries should belong to party members. Democrats and Republicans, alike, should get to pick their own candidates without interference. Of course in the general election, all registered voters should get to vote for whomever they wish regardless of party.
There’s way too much gamesmanship, and frankly dishonesty, that comes with open primaries. I think of primaries like basketball teams picking their players for a pickup game. If the rules allowed your opponent to pick your team, you’d think that was ridiculous. Yet, that’s pretty much how primaries work in this state.
A lot of folks are guilty of doing this too, whether it’s crossing over to vote for who you believe to be the weaker candidate on the opposing side or jumping to the opposite primary to help ensure the candidate you like least doesn’t make it to the general election.
These best-laid plans can certainly backfire. I have a close friend — a dyed-in-wool pro-Hillary Democrat — who in 2016 voted for Trump in the Republican presidential primary because there was “no way in hell he’d win the general election.” We all know how that worked out.
I know the arguments for open primaries. Maybe you’re an independent and don’t think you should have to declare a party to vote in a primary. Some crossover voters may not like their party’s candidate, or they may want to leverage their vote in a way they believe best positions the candidate they actually support.
Full disclosure: Even I’ve done this once. I didn’t like my party’s guy for governor, so I voted in the opposite party’s primary for a person I supported more (and against the candidate I disliked most of all). I regret it to this day, not because I didn’t really support the guy I voted for, but because I view what I did as a dishonest attempt to interfere with another party’s process.
Dishonesty, even for what you believe to be a good cause, is still dishonesty. If we are willing to help throw a primary out of self-interest or political gamesmanship, it’s hollow for us to criticize elected officials who make decisions for those same reasons.
I especially find it interesting when many of the same people who cross over to game a primary are the same people who will rail against a local election candidate running for office as a supposed member of the opposite party purely out of political interest — the RINOs and DINOs, if you will. How are these things different?
In fairness, as long as there are open primaries, I don’t really blame people for exploiting them. The change here, in my view, isn’t the individual’s responsibility. My focus is on the system that allows it.
Our state needs to close primaries to protect their integrity. It needs to allow citizens to name their party on their voter registration, and it needs to allow the teams to pick their players for the big game without interference.
Besides, if you’re so worried about your party’s candidate that you want to game the other party’s primary to make it easier to win the general election, maybe your party should recruit a stronger contender from the outset.
Zack Plair is managing editor of The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]