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Free Citizen

This writer espouses individual liberty, free markets, and limited government.

Location: Jackson, Mississippi, United States

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The "Father of the Open Primary Law" Passes Away

Today's Clarion-Ledger features the obituaries of two former members of the Mississippi House of Representatives. They are Stone Barefield Sr., 81, of Hattiesburg, who served from 1960 to 1984, and Joe G. Moss, 86, of Raymond, who served from 1956 to 1976.

In 1966, the Mississippi legislature became the first in the nation to enact a system of nonpartisan elections-- popularly called "open primaries"-- for all state as well as local offices. Barefield was obviously proud of his role in this action, as his obituary says, in part:

"He was known as the Father of the Open Primary Law, which he authored and introduced in the House of Representatives and was signed into law, but was later set aside by the Federal Courts. The law allowed all candidates for an office to run against each other regardless political affiliation, with the two top vote getters having a run off, thus preventing a candidate from being elected except upon a majority vote [50%-plus] of the people. In spite of the revocation of the law in Mississippi, the Louisiana legislature adopted the same law, based upon the language of the bill Mr. Barefield authored, and it remains law in Louisiana today."

Governor Paul Johnson Jr., who had tried to get the "open primary" passed in 1964, vetoed the 1966 bill (Johnson, like Barefield, was from Hattiesburg).

In 1970, the legislature enacted the "open primary" for the second time. In 1971, a three-judge federal panel headed by circuit Judge Charles Clark[1} blocked the law's implementation (Evers v. State Board of Election Commissioners 327 F. Supp. 640). The other judges were district judges Dan Russell and Walter Nixon.

In 1975, Governor Bill Waller Sr. vetoed the third "open primary" bill.[2]

The legislature enacted the "open primary" for the fourth and fifth times in 1976 and 1979, respectively. Both times it was rejected by the U. S. Department of Justice under the Voting Rights Act.

Governor Edwin Edwards (now rotting in federal prison) spearheaded the Louisiana legislature's passage of the "open primary." The Justice Department approved it, and that state has used it for all state and local elections since 1975. The Bayou State also used the "open primary" for its congressional elections, 1978-2006, but restored party primaries for Congress in 2008.[3]

In a pleasant phone conversation with me on February 14, 2003, Moss demonstrated a clear memory of the 1966 legislative action. He said the buzz around the Capitol was that Mississippi's James Eastland, who then chaired the judiciary committee of the U. S. Senate, had advised Governor Johnson to veto the bill. I believe that this veto was largely related to the passage of the 1965 federal Voting Rights Act (in the failed attempt to override the veto, both Barefield and Moss had voted to override).

May these two fine public servants rest in peace.

Click here for a detailed discussion of this and related topics.


[1] Following his retirement some years later, Judge Clark stated in The Clarion-Ledger that he personally favored the "open primary."

[2] I contacted former Governor Waller, now age 82, by both postal mail and e-mail, but he never replied. In contrast, former Governor William Winter, who was lieutenant governor under Waller, did respond but had no recollection of the 1975 bill.

[3] In 2008, Washington, which calls it the "top two," became the second state to use a similar system for all state offices. Washington alone now uses it for its congressional elections. At this writing, litigation brought by several of that state's political parties against the "top two" is before a U. S. district court.


Blogger Brian said...

Great post. Interesting and in-depth. I appreciate that extra level of Mississippi political research and knowledge that makes this more than just an opinion piece but makes it informational as well. Enjoyed it.

Wed Mar 25, 07:25:00 AM CDT  
Blogger Michael Morrison said...

After much thought and quite a bit of actually voting (which I must sometimes blush to admit), I have concluded the whole concept of "primaries" ought to be ended.
Instead, let us return to the original system of conventions.
First the precinct, then the county, then the state convention.
Perhaps even a district convention could be used to pick candidates for, say, Congress or state legislature.
There are advantages: First, no cost to the already overburdened taxpayers.
Ssecond, control over who gets to pick a party's candidates.
That is, no rascals from another party can vote in a party's primary and help pick a weaker candidate.
Third, parties, which the Founders didn't want anyway, get away from control of governments, and governments get away, somewhat, from control of parties.

Wed Mar 25, 06:13:00 PM CDT  

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