PERRY/Considering election reforms
Wednesday, August 20, 2014 1:00 AM
The qualifying deadline for running for the state legislature occurs during next year's legislative session. Cynics, perhaps realists, suggest little is done in an election year session because incumbents seeking reelection do not appreciate controversy during the qualifying time and so soon before party primaries.
Lots of folks are talking about election reform but incumbents may be hesitant to change the election system under which they were successfully elected and through which they hope to be reelected. In the words of Pappy O'Daniel in O Brother Where Art Thou, "How we gonna run reform when we're the damn incumbent!"
Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann (R-Jackson) is putting together a committee to look at election issues including Mississippi's primary system, early voting, online voter registration and other issues. State Senator David Blount (D-Jackson), who worked in the office of Hosemann's predecessor Eric Clark, has advanced ideas for early voting, online voter registration, same day registration and a returning suffrage rights to felons once they have paid their debt to society. In 2012, the legislature created an election reform task force which was to present a final report last year for recommendations of reform.
Some of these issues are easily addressed. Online voter registration is a no-brainer for a state that already does so much of its official filings online. Same-day registration is a mechanical nightmare potentially requiring registration at the polls or additional affidavit ballot use. There is a technology challenge there in getting someone registered on the same day into the pre-printed poll books. We have the technology to manage that and perhaps one day we'll have I-Pad style poll books updated in real time, or perhaps voting kiosks where a voter inserts his card, scans his thumb, and can vote anywhere in the state using his home precinct ballot.
Changing our primary system would be a dramatic alteration of politics and elections in Mississippi.
Mississippi has an open primary (or as the Courts describe it a "semi-closed") primary allowing anyone to participate in one primary on election day. We don't register by party in Mississippi. No one is a "registered Republican" or "registered Democrat" or "registered Independent." In a sense, partisanship is a state of mind. And on primary election day, when voters gather to choose the nominees of the respective parties, you can choose to participate in either primary. The courts recognize that at that moment you sign-in and vote in the Republican Primary you are a Republican; or those voting in the Democratic Primary are Democrats. Maybe not five minutes before; maybe not five minutes later; but at that moment, by virtue of participating in the primary, you belong to that party association. Some oppose this partisan existential ambiguity because it is too open; others because it is too restrictive.
Some would like to see an increased regulation of elections in which a person, to participate in a party's primary, must be registered as a "member" of that party before voting. If you change your mind on which primary you want to participate in, you must first change your registration. Some states allow same day party registration changes; other states require a much longer advance change in order to print poll books accordingly. Those registered as Libertarians could not participate in the Republican Party; those registered as the Green Party could not participate in the Democratic Party; those registered as Independents could not participate in any primary.
The Mississippi Democratic Party sought just such restrictions and won them in 2007 when in response to their lawsuit, US District Judge Allen Pepper ordered statewide registration by party.
But as remedies he also ordered statewide re-registration of all voters and voter-ID. On appeal, a panel of the US Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned his ruling.
Others want to open the process even further. They would like to vote, for example, in the Democratic Primary for sheriff, Republican Primary for their state Representative, Democratic Primary for supervisor and then back in the Republican Primary for a statewide office. The candidate in each party who receives the most votes continues to the general election. This system - the "blanket primary" - has been used by California, Washington and Alaska but has been struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court.
A twist on that method is the "jungle primary" employed by Louisiana in which all candidates are listed on the ballot (and if no candidate gets a majority) the top two candidates advance to the next election regardless of party. You could have a Republican and a Democrat in the final election; or two Republicans or two Democrats.
Mississippi's election laws need some serious updating to correct conflicting statutes or policies which make little sense as the technology of voting mechanics have changed. But I don't anticipate a full scale system change in next year's session.
Brian Perry is a columnist for the Madison County Journal and a partner with Capstone Public Affairs, LLC. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or @CapstonePerry on Twitter.