Miss. Secretary of State Report Backs Nonpartisan, Top-Two Primary

Taxpayer-funded party primaries may soon be a thing of the past in Mississippi, if a recent report from a state-sponsored study group means anything.

Convened by Mississippi’s secretary of state, the 50-member panel endorsed the top-two model for primary elections in mid-January, but stopped short of backing any immediate change for fear that it could confuse election workers.

As a group, the panel didn’t have any formal legislative or policymaking authority, so any change in how Mississippians vote in primaries would need to come through the state Legislature.

Even so, their 18-page report held fast to assertions about why a top-two primary system was needed in the state, particularly startling for a jurisdiction in the South that reliably votes red at the state level.

For starters, the majority of the committee’s members who sided with the idea said a top-two system would favor “election results based upon the issues of the election,” breaking up areas with one-party control and bringing more moderates into the fold.

They also held that the shift to a top-two primary system could improve the rates at which unaffiliated minorities, young people, and veterans overseas participate in primary elections.

The shift to a top-two primary system could improve the rates at which unaffiliated minorities, young people, and veterans overseas participate in primary elections.
Another factor in their endorsement: money. The report stated that funding the candidate selection process for political paprties made the current primary systems in Mississippi “expensive and inconvenient” to maintain for voters.

Panelists seemed to favor the top-two model as a less expensive alternative. Their report quoted Louisiana’s election commissioner as estimating that her state pocketed $5 million in savings every two years as a result of their election model.

Much of the committee’s analysis was based on top-two primary systems that already exist in states like California, Louisiana, and Washington state, compared with the various other long-running closed, semi-closed, and open primaries in other states.

Mississippi technically has an open partisan primary. Voters do not have to register with a political party to participate in primary elections, but voters must choose between a Republican and Democratic ballot.

Further, a section of law says “no person shall be eligible to participate in any primary election unless he/she intends to support the nominations made in the primary in which he/she participates,” but a federal court has ruled that there is no practical way to enforce this.

A top-two system is different in that it allows all voters and candidates, regardless of party affiliation, to participate on a single ballot. Voters can cast a ballot for any candidate in any party, large or small. The top two vote-getters advance to the general election, regardless of party affiliation.

Louisiana’s election system does differ from the top-two primary models in California and Washington state. Instead of having the first round of elections before November, all eligible candidates and voters participate on a single ballot in November when other states hold their general elections. If a candidate gets over 50 percent of the vote, he or she wins the election. If no candidate receives 50 percent plus one of the vote, a runoff election is held in December between the top two vote-getters.

Advocates believe the top-two model opens up the political process and could help reduce the record-high levels of partisanship between the country’s two major parties.

Partisan Opposition 

Opponents of top-two, like the 20 committee members who voted to only make amendments to the current system, argue that allowing voters affiliated with other parties to cast ballots in a precursor to the general election could weaken party integrity.

Neither the Democratic nor Republican Parties of Mississippi seemed taken with the idea. A Mississippi public broadcast station quoted chairmen for both state parties as coming out against any change.

They aren’t alone. As IVN reported in a previous story, Democratic and Republican Parties nationwide have fought to close or preserve already closed primaries in states like Hawaii, Idaho, and South Carolina over the last several years.

But it’s not just the partisan political operatives and parties raising questions about the top-two system, either.

Barry Burden, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin, said in a previous interview that there wasn’t “a consistent finding that shows these registration laws actually lead to more polarization.”

A report for the Midwest Political Science Association culled information from nearly 20 years of opinion polls that suggested that open primaries can produce more polarization than closed primaries. However, that same research spotted signs that political polarization had leavened in California and Louisiana.

The debate aside, it may be a while longer before the study receives serious consideration. Still, a change in primary election models may not be timelier, with one Gallup poll finding that a record-setting 43 percent of Americans consider themselves independent from either major party.

A spokesperson for Mississippi’s secretary of state did not immediately return a request for comment for this story.