Once again, Mississippi voters, frustrated by not being able to cross party lines to cast ballots for their favorite candidates, are excited about installing an “open primary” election system that neighboring Louisiana has had since 1975.
Not that the Legislature hasn’t tried to scrap the state’s traditional closed primary system. In fact, four times since 1966, lawmakers have passed legislation to put candidates for all parties (and independents) on the same primary ballot without party designation and require a runoff between the two highest finishers.
For various reasons, none of the bills have become law. Mostly it’s been the Justice Department disapproved Mississippi’s proposed changes under Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Blacks objected it would block them running as independents in general elections after being historically shut out of the closed Democratic primaries.
After Republicans fielded their first major general election bid for governor against Democrat Paul B. Johnson in 1963, Johnson complained he had to run “three primaries” to be elected. He advocated installing the open primary to virtually eliminate GOP candidates as a threat to Democrats.
Oddly, when the 1966 Legislature passed an open primary bill, he vetoed the measure, saying “it is an inopportune time for radical changes in our election procedures.” Lawmakers narrowly failed to override his veto, injecting the race issue by emphasizing existing law would let independent black candidates win without a majority vote.
Open primary backers four years later under Gov. John Bell Williams pushed through a bill which Williams signed to install the plan for the 1971 elections, contingent on Justice Department approval. Some Mississippi Republicans by then decided the system could help elect GOP candidates and wanted the Nixon Administration to okay the state’s law. An unsigned note on a White House letterhead to Jerris Leonard, Justice’s civil rights chief, asked him to clear the law. (When I uncovered the note among court papers in 1980, I wrongly attributed its authorship to state GOP leader Clarke Reed, a big Nixon friend. Later after Clarke chastised me, I discovered that Fred LaRue, a Mississippian then working in the White House, wrote it.)