Repub­li­can or Demo­crat?

Pro­posal could force pri­mary vot­ers to regis­ter pref­er­ence

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - EDITORIAL PAGE - Greg Har­ton Greg Har­ton is ed­i­to­rial page ed­i­tor for the North­west Arkansas Demo­crat-Gazette. Con­tact him by email at ghar­ton@nwadg.com or on Twit­ter @NWAGreg.

The first time I could legally vote was in 1984, when Ron­ald Rea­gan and Ge­orge H.W. Bush were wrap­ping up their first term as pres­i­dent and vice pres­i­dent. They would face for­mer vice pres­i­dent Wal­ter Mon­dale and Geral­dine Fer­raro, a con­gress­woman from New York and the first woman ever nom­i­nated for the pres­i­den­tial ticket.

Bill Clin­ton was gover­nor of Arkansas. He was in his sec­ond term, back when the state’s terms lasted only two years. A mea­sure on that year’s bal­lot changed fu­ture terms to four years. That Novem­ber, Clin­ton hand­ily de­feated Repub­li­can Woody Free­man.

U.S. Sen. David Pryor fended off a chal­lenge by cen­tral Arkansas’ U.S. Rep. Ed Bethune, who the prior year had spo­ken at my Ea­gle Scout cer­e­mony at Geyer Springs United Methodist Church in Lit­tle Rock. Ap­par­ently, no crowd was too small for Bethune to work for po­ten­tial votes.

Sen. Dale Bumpers was the other U.S. sen­a­tor at the time. The other con­gress­men for Arkansas were Bill Alexan­der, John Paul Ham­mer­schmidt and Beryl An­thony Jr. The lat­ter three were un­op­posed on the 1984 bal­lot.

That was the year Tommy Robin­son, a Demo­crat, got elected to Congress in Bethune’s place. He was the in­fa­mous Pu­laski County sher­iff who chained state in­mates to the front gate of an Arkansas prison when his lo­cal jail was over­crowded and state prison of­fi­cials wouldn’t ac­cept the pris­on­ers. He also jailed, for a short while, the county judge on an al­le­ga­tion of ob­struc­tion of gov­ern­men­tal op­er­a­tions af­ter the judge de­nied Robin­son’s re­quest for more money to run the sher­iff’s of­fice. Five years later, he be­came a Repub­li­can and ran for gover­nor, los­ing in the GOP pri­mary to Sh­effield Nel­son.

Ac­cord­ing to the En­cy­clo­pe­dia of Arkansas His­tory and Cul­ture, na­tional GOP Chair­man Lee At­wa­ter (cor­rectly it turns out) viewed Robin­son as a can­di­date who could fight a rough cam­paign against Clin­ton, who At­wa­ter viewed as a po­ten­tial pres­i­den­tial ri­val for Ge­orge H.W. Bush’s fu­ture plans. Vote to­tals in the Repub­li­can pri­mary were un­usu­ally high, the en­cy­clo­pe­dia re­calls, in part due to a stop-Robin­son move­ment in which Democrats re­port­edly switched to vot­ing in the Repub­li­can pri­mary to pro­tect Clin­ton.

Back in 1984, even be­fore I’d fin­ished my se­nior year in high school, my first bal­lot was in the spring pri­mary. I had pre­pared by get­ting to know can­di­dates, but my young mind had not yet grasped one ob­vi­ous fact about pri­maries. When the poll worker said “Demo­crat or Repub­li­can,” I was a lit­tle of­fended. I thought bal­lots were sup­posed to be se­cret. It took a minute to sink in that pri­maries weren’t like gen­eral elec­tions. If I wanted to help pick a party’s nom­i­nees, of course I’d have to iden­tify which party I wanted to do that for.

I can’t for the life of me re­mem­ber which party I picked.

If State Rep. Jim Dot­son of Ben­tonville has his way, Arkansas vot­ers won’t be given a choice on Elec­tion Day.

He pro­posed a bill in the last leg­isla­tive ses­sion to close Arkansas’ open pri­mary sys­tem. It went nowhere in the ses­sion, but in a leg­isla­tive com­mit­tee meet­ing in Eureka Springs this week, it will be con­sid­ered for in­terim study. That would mean hear­ings and other prepa­ra­tions for its pos­si­ble con­sid­er­a­tion in the next leg­isla­tive ses­sion.

The bill would en­ti­tle a voter to cast a bal­lot only in the pri­mary of the po­lit­i­cal party des­ig­nated on his voter reg­is­tra­tion. If some­one wants to vote Repub­li­can, for ex­am­ple, he would have to be reg­is­tered as a Repub­li­can no later than 30 days be­fore a pri­mary. It would be un­law­ful for a voter to cast a bal­lot in a po­lit­i­cal party pri­mary in which the voter is not reg­is­tered.

I’m not a “mem­ber” of any party nor do I af­fil­i­ate with ei­ther. Last year, I voted in the Repub­li­can pri­mary. I have long won­dered why I, some­one who isn’t staunchly in ei­ther party’s cor­ner, have a role in select­ing the party’s stan­dard bearer for pres­i­dent or for any other of­fice.

Open pri­maries are said to draw in more in­de­pen­dents and more ac­cu­rately re­flect what vot­ers gen­er­ally want to see in the can­di­dates they’ll be asked to con­sider in a gen­eral elec­tion. But shouldn’t a po­lit­i­cal party want to put for­ward the can­di­dates that best rep­re­sent what the party is about?

And the big con­cern about open pri­maries, as sup­pos­edly hap­pened in the Tommy Robin­son sit­u­a­tion, is that vot­ers from the op­pos­ing party can switch pri­maries if they be­lieve it’s bet­ter to dis­rupt the op­pos­ing party’s nom­i­na­tion than to in­flu­ence their own party’s se­lec­tions.

Closed pri­maries would no doubt make the nom­i­nees be­have more like Democrats or Repub­li­cans. Some would say it would drive them closer to each party’s core sup­port­ers. The choice in the gen­eral elec­tion would be more starkly de­fined, but some pre­fer a sys­tem that drives the can­di­dates in both par­ties to­ward mid­dle ground.

I’ve got no prob­lem with closed pri­maries, but I’d want law­mak­ers to do some­thing they’d prob­a­bly never do: Lower bar­ri­ers to par­tic­i­pa­tion by can­di­dates from third par­ties. If the state’s sys­tem is go­ing to try to force peo­ple into party af­fil­i­a­tions, Arkansans ought to have more choices than just Democrats and Repub­li­cans.

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