Arkansas elections fine the way they are
For most of the last century, Republicans in Arkansas faced a difficult choice during the spring of even-numbered years: They could forgo the chance to have a voice in local government, or they could choke back their pride and ask an election official for a ballot in the state’s Democratic preferential primary.
That’s because, in the old days, there was rarely a Republican listed on a ballot anywhere in Arkansas. Oh, an occasional Republican would run for an office here or there, but their names wouldn’t show up on a contested ballot until the November general election. There was almost never a contested Republican primary anywhere in the state. Democrats so dominated state and county government for most of the 20th century that the only way to participate in choosing a state legislator or county sheriff or — in those days — a circuit judge was to vote in the Democratic primary.
Republicans were, at that time, grateful for Arkansas’ flexible and accommodating open primary system. Arkansas law allowed — and for the time being, still does — registered voters to choose which primary to cast their ballots regardless of party allegiance. Such a system allowed Republicans and independents the chance to make their voices heard, since Democrats were more often than not, unopposed in the general election, too.
Things began to change after the state elected a Republican governor in 1966. Winthrop Rockefeller was not your typical Republican, but he certainly was not a Democrat. His victory lit a spark. In places like Benton, Sebastian and Stone counties, the GOP began to challenge Democrats for county and legislative positions, eventually becoming the majority in those places. Progress elsewhere was slow until about a decade ago, when the Republican political tide that had already swept through the rest of the South finally reached Arkansas.
By 2013, Republicans and Democrats had switched roles. Now, it’s the Democrats who are more likely to be faced with the primary election day choice of forfeiting their franchise on local offices or voting in the Republican primary.
Like 20th Century Republicans, modern day Democrats are likely grateful they have that choice. But they may not have it for long.
Jim Dotson, a Republican state house member from Bentonville, wants the Legislature to study closing preferential primaries in Arkansas. He proposed such a bill during the last legislative session that got referred to “interim study,” which is often code for “oblivion.” But at an interim legislative meeting last week, Dotson floated the idea again, and lawmakers will take a look at it before the next session.
Unlike Arkansas, many states ask voters to formally declare a party affiliation in order to vote in primaries, eliminating the possibility of cross-over voting and shutting out independent voters — those who don’t have a party preference — until the general election.
That’s not something Arkansas should emulate. For one thing, Arkansas’ current system gives voters more, rather than fewer, choices. For another, most of the electorate finds itself in the middle of the political spectrum rather than at either extreme. The choice serves those voters better than a system that shuts out moderates and independents, especially when many local elections are decided at the primary level.
Dotson’s argument for closed primaries is simple: He’s concerned that the current system leaves the primaries open to election-day shenanigans: say, Democrats crossing over in the primary to elect a “weaker” Republican for the general election.
It’s precisely the kind of dirty trick Democrats feared Republicans might pull in old days: Run a strong GOP candidate unopposed in a primary and then cross over to nominate a Democrat easier to beat in the fall.
There’s little evidence that Republicans of the time ever tried it, and no evidence that it might have succeeded. We’d like to think it’s because most Republicans could see both the immorality and impracticality of such an effort and were able to turn back those radical partisans within their ranks who wanted to take the darker path.
Democrats of that era would accuse Republicans of plotting some kind of cross-over chicanery and made a few noises about changing the primary system as well. But, they never did, despite their complete dominance of the political process. We’d like to think that’s because there were enough fair-minded Democrats in those days to shout down the rabid ideologues who put winning above the interests of the general public.
We’d also like to think that today’s Democrats and Republicans, with shoes firmly on opposite feet, will follow past examples and keep the current primary system both open and honest. A system with more choices for the voters serves their interests. Closing primaries to just the partisans serves only the party that happens to be in power.