Pri­mary les­son

Arkansas elec­tions fine the way they are

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - EDITORIAL PAGE -

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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.