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Open primaries with open runoffs are a bad idea

No more Yellow States

Thad Cochran allegedly may have bought, cheated and conned his way into the Mississippi GOP Senate nomination, and the jury is still out (prophetically speaking) on whether there will be a do-over runoff election, or even if Cochran will be eligible to run.  All that aside, there are still some lessons we, the electorate, can learn from this electoral debacle.

One of the toughest lessons is that—illegal activity notwithstanding—it’s really, really hard to beat the machine, because the machine is rigged against us and for the embedded self-interests of incumbents.  Real change in the GOP comes from electing the right candidates.  It’s pretty near impossible to do that if the party aparatchik decides to enlist Democrats and resort to race baiting in its quest to preserve the status quo.

By now it’s pretty obvious that Thad Cochran actually lost the Republican primary runoff to Chris McDaniel, probably by at least 8 points.  But because Mississippi employs some anachronistic primary voting laws, known as open primaries with open runoffs, the Barbour machine, the NSRC, and Cochran’s thumb-sucking campaign staff was allowed to enlist anyone who hadn’t voted in the Democratic Party primary to vote in the Republican runoff.  This was perfectly legal to do, although I doubt that it was done perfectly legally.  It certainly was not done with honor.

Regardless of Cochran’s fate, the GOP leadership, addicted to mainlining large cash infusions from rich donors with agendas, takes notice of what works.  As the conservative wing (known as the “fringe” or Tea Party by the beltway elites) of the party attempts to restore sanity by backing good, philosophically sound Republican candidates, the elites fight back with everything in their dirty tricks bag.  This is especially troubling given the number of solid red states which, like Mississippi, have some really bad election laws on the books.

A brief primer on primaries:  they are either “open” or “closed”.  An open primary is one in which a voter may select which ballot they want when they enter the polls.  A closed primary is one in which you must vote the ballot of the party of which you registered as a voter (some allow independents to choose at the polls).  There’s a few weird combinations (like Ohio, Illinois and Iowa), there’s California’s “modified closed” primary, and then there’s Louisiana and Washington, which have nonpartisan open primaries in which candidates from both parties appear on the same ballot—I won’t get into the mess in those states.

The map below depicts primary election laws broken into a few categories by color:  orange = close primary, green = open primary, dark cyan = some unusual combination of open primary, light cyan = “jungle” or “cajun” primary, light orange = closed primary with open runoff, and yellow = open primary with open runoff.

US Open-Closed Primaries

It is the yellow states I wish to address.  These include Texas, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina.  Yes, the heart of the deep south, all solidly in the GOP column, for now.  These states have an open primary, with an open runoff.  This means that any voter, either party, can vote in either primary.  It means that in the runoff, voters who voted in the primary must vote in the same party’s runoff, but voters who didn’t vote in the primary may vote in either party runoff.  Some states may try to strictly enforce the party runoff rule, but most, because of the short time between the primary and the runoff, simply rely on a voter’s affidavit of what party ballot they voted in the primary.

This leaves those primaries and runoffs open to massive voter manipulation, as we saw in Mississippi.  Any candidate challenging the incumbent in the yellow states can be “Cochraned” out of the running.  We see it can happen pretty easily with the right machinery.  Not every incumbent campaign is as hamfisted and fatuous as Cochran’s, so if this were to happen again, it’s more likely it would be done with a bit more finesse, resulting in a losing battle for the conservative candidate.

Not only can it be done by the GOP elites to GOP challengers, but it can also be done by the Democrats looking to cherry pick the best candidate to run against in the general election.  It really sucks to have the other party choose your nominee.

Georgia hasn’t had its Senate runoff yet, which is less then three weeks away.  I don’t see either Jack Kingston or David Perdue resorting to the kind of Tammany Hall tactics used in Mississippi.  But we never know what Michelle Nunn’s campaign or the DSCC might be cooking to pull the vote one way or the other.  As much as this is a corner-case in Georgia, doesn’t it make sense for the next legislative session to end this primary system once and for all?

I recommend that in every yellow state, let’s get our state legislators to change the law and change to a modified closed primary, like California, with independents allowed to select their ballot at the poll, and a closed runoff; if you didn’t vote in the primary, you have to vote along party lines (possibly with the same provision for independents, or not—I prefer not).  There’s no rational reason that we have to have the kind of free-for-all and invitation for fraud we saw in Mississippi.  It’s not good for the party, and it’s not good for the country as a whole.

As for Washington State and Louisiana, those legislators should just stop smoking weed and eating strange mushrooms, and then think about some sanity in primary elections.

Our goal for 2015:  no more yellow states, please!*

*and Georgia, please fix our absentee runoff issues so we don’t have a nine-week gap in the middle of summer

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