Local Columnists

June 30, 2014

Dave Helling: Opening primary elections may make for better candidates, better government

As illustrated by Sen. Thad Cochran’s victory over tea party challenger Chris McDaniel in Mississippi, primary elections are strange institutions that need a closer look. Restricting primaries so only party members can vote has some appeal, but if the parties want to do that, they should pay for the election.

Conservative Mississippi Republicans are wailing about the results of Chris McDaniel’s primary runoff with Sen. Thad Cochran. Cochran won his rematch with McDaniel, analysts believe, because lots of African-Americans voted in the race.

McDaniel and his supporters have cried foul. Democrats, they sniff, ended up picking the GOP nominee.

Ironies abound. Runoffs were invented to prevent African-American candidates from winning elections. No African-American, it was believed, would ever get more than half the votes in a two-person race.

And the state Legislature, of which McDaniel is a member, never changed that system. So he lost his race because African-Americans cast ballots in a runoff designed to keep African-Americans off the ballot.

Sometimes politics is pretty cool.

Still, McDaniel’s broader point is compelling. Primaries are strange institutions that need a closer look.

Unlike Mississippi, some states close their primaries. In Kansas, for example, you must declare as a Republican to vote in the GOP primary, while Democrats vote for Democrats. Unaffiliated voters can declare when they cast their ballots, but they must declare.

Closed primaries have some appeal. If I don’t want to officially join either major party, why should I help decide the GOP nominee for governor or the Democratic candidate for the Senate? Let party members decide.

On the other hand, why should I help pay for an election in which I can’t vote? If the political parties want to control who casts ballots in their primaries, fine. Let them pay for the election.

Taxpayer-supported primaries should either be open to everyone or closed — with the parties picking up the tab.

Or … a third approach, one that might address the crossover-voter concern. Hold open primaries, let taxpayers pay the cost — but allow the top two vote-getters to advance to the general election regardless of party.

That usually would mean the Republican and Democrat, but not always. In any case, the incentive to cross party lines is reduced. Most voters would want to make sure their preferred candidate finished in the top two rather than cause mischief for the other side.

There are eight declared Senate candidates in Kansas, including one independent. Imagine the importance of the August primary if all eight were competing with each other now, with the top two finishers meeting in November.

That kind of primary would justify the taxpayer expense and might make for better government, too.

To reach Dave Helling, call 816-234-4656 or send email to dhelling@kcstar.com.

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