Conservative Democrats Decry Mississippi Closed Primary Ruling

The federal district court for the Northern District of Mississippi last month ruled in favor of state Democratic Party officials who wanted to close their primaries to non-Democratic voters, much to the irritation of many of the party’s own officeholders who are warning of a return to racial bloc voting in the state:

Republican-leaning voters in Mississippi have long been able to cross party lines in primaries, voting for centrist Democrats in state and local races while staying loyal to Republican candidates in national races. But political experts here say that by limiting these voters — almost all of whom are white — to Republican primaries, the ruling will push centrist Democratic candidates to the other party, simply in order to survive.

Most black voters in Mississippi are Democrats, and black political leaders have been pushing for years to prevent crossover voting in Democratic primaries. Black leaders say they want to end precisely what white Democrats here seek to preserve, a strong moderate-to-conservative voice in the Democratic Party, and in the process to pick up more state and local posts. …

The Democrats’ dominance at the local level may now be threatened by Judge Pepper’s ruling.

“If they are required to re-register, the Democratic Party will be a shell of its former self because I just don’t think you’ll see those conservative whites re-register as Democratic,” said Jere Nash, who is white and a veteran consultant and onetime chief of staff to former Gov. Ray Mabus, a Democrat.

R. Andrew Taggart, a white lawyer who succeeded Mr. Nash when Kirk Fordice, a Republican, was elected governor, agreed. The ruling was “very far-reaching,” Mr. Taggart said. “He has essentially ruled our entire primary structure must be changed.”

“If forced to make a decision,” Mr. Taggart added, “a plurality of Mississippi voters will identify themselves as Republican.”

Black Democrats who pushed the lawsuit that led to the ruling seemed to view the potential hemorrhaging of white voters with equanimity. One of their leaders is Ike Brown, a state Democratic executive committee member who was recently found by another federal judge to have systematically violated voting rights of whites, through intimidation and other means, as party boss in his home county, Noxubee, in the eastern part of the state.

Welcoming Judge Pepper’s ruling, Mr. Brown said in an interview: “We are tired of being abused by the white Democrats in Mississippi. We have just had enough. We want the Republicans out of our party.”

Democrats here have recently made other efforts to rid their party of Republican leanings, trying, for instance, to force the state’s conservative insurance commissioner, George Dale, off their primary ballot because he voted for Mr. Bush. A judge put Mr. Dale back on.

A correspondent of Rick Hasen asks, “How is this distinguishable from the White Primary Cases?” Most obviously, because there are no rules limiting party registration and primary voting to members of one race, which was not the case under the white primary as practiced by state Democratic parties across the South in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. So long as blatant thuggery, like that alleged to have taken place in Noxubee County at Brown’s behest, is kept in check the risk of a new “Black Primary” emerging is small.

Tactically, however, one has to wonder about black Democrats’ tactics. If moderate-to-conservative whites are systematically driven into the GOP’s waiting arms by the closed primary rule, it is true that many white moderate-to-conservative Democrats in the legislature and local office will be replaced by blacks (or more liberal whites).

However, at least some of them will be replaced by Republicans, and much of the power that black Democrats have today in Mississippi politics is due to being part of the majority party in the state House of Representatives–a majority that only persists due to the conservative Democrats Brown and his allies want to drive out of the party. Due to simple demographics, a state house purged of conservative Democrats will be a state house with a GOP majority–and no black committee chairs. Such a chamber will hardly be sympathetic to the policy preferences of black voters, even if they get a few more seats in the chamber filled by black faces.

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Chris Lawrence
About Chris Lawrence
Chris teaches political science at Middle Georgia State University in Macon, Georgia. He has a Ph.D. in political science (with concentrations in American politics and political methodology) from the University of Mississippi. He began writing for OTB in June 2006. Follow him on Twitter @lordsutch.


  1. floyd says:

    Considering this and all the other maneuvering behind the scenes and in plain sight, One need not be cynical to think that the very idea of government elected by the people at any level is a farce.

  2. Jeff Quinton says:

    There was consideration of going back to closed primaries in SC after the 2000 presidential primary when it was thought that large numbers of Dems were going to vote for McCain. Nothing ever came of it that I know of. Moving from there to a state with party registration and closed primaries is just weird – I’ prefer to be an independent but that gives me zero input in the process until the general election the way the primaries are closed in MD.

  3. Jeff says:

    I am with James on this that I cannot understand the strategy behind this move the Mississippi Democrats have made.

    It is inevitable that they are going to lose seats across the state with the wave of members leaving their party.

    So what is their motivation of doing this other then creating their own “Minority Party?”