Mississippi garnered unexpected national attention this summer as its system of open primary voting became a contributor to the wider debate of how best to fairly and legitimately select candidates and representatives. If you haven’t been paying attention, Mississippi’s long running Republican Senator, Thad Cochran, came very close to losing his seat to Tea Party Conservative Chris McDaniel in a rather ugly, tight primary race. In an effort to overcome his challenger in a runoff election, Cochran strategically capitalized on Mississippi’s use of open primary voting by asking traditionally Democratic voters to support him in the primary runoff against his far more conservative opponent. In a state where Democrats’ primary voters turned out in less than half the number of participants as the Republican primary, Cochran’s gambit to garner those as-yet uncast primary votes could be considered borderline tactical genius. McDaniel and his supporters are pretty sure, however, that it should be considered less than legal.
Much fuss has been made over the legality of this cross-over voting, but the Mississippi law’s intent standard makes it virtually unenforceable. The law allows anyone to vote in a party primary if they intend to vote for that party’s candidate in the general election. However, according to a federal judge, enforcement is contingent on a voter being properly challenged at the polls, and then openly declaring their intent not to vote for that party’s nominee in the general election. As it turns out, knowing and/or proving a voter’s future voting intent during primary voting is practically impossible. The intent standard is not met by showing evidence of the voter’s past political affiliation or preferences, or even by their later choice of candidate in the general election. The only thing that matters is the voter’s intent at the moment they cast the primary ballot. They are allowed to change their mind between the primary and November’s general election. Truly, the only way to discern a voter’s intent, short of psychic ability, is for the voter to be properly challenged and then declare their intent on the day of the primary.