Let me preface this with a quick primer on my political views: I consider myself an independent, a Christian libertarian. I have never voted a straight party ticket in my life. I try to stay informed the best I can and vote for the best person, in my view. I have always lived in open primary states, so in the primary I choose whichever ballot has the most action. In southeast Missouri where I grew up, I took a Democrat ballot. In northern Alabama, I take a Republican ballot.
Today is primary election day here in Alabama. Alabama’s election process includes a runoff election between the primary and the general election. In a primary election you can have any number of candidates from each party for a certain office. The purpose of the primary election is for party loyalists to choose their favorite candidate for the general election. After the regular primary election, in Alabama we have also have a runoff election. (It’s scheduled for July 15.) In the event no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote the top two candidates face off in the runoff election. It’s sort of a second round of the primary. It certainly makes the election process more interesting. When there are three or four candidates in the primary, the favorite is going to push to win the primary outright so he can avoid the runoff. When there is a huge field, everyone knows there will be a runoff, so the real battle is for second place in the election so he can win a spot in the runoff.
As I said, Alabama is an open primary state. That means you can come to the polling place on election day and choose which party you want to vote for. Other states require you to register as a member of a certain party, and you have to take that party’s ballot in the primary. I don’t have an objection to either of these methods. Of course anyone can choose any candidate on the general election ballot, regardless of party. No one is obligated to vote for their chosen party on the general ballot.
The quirk in Alabama’s system is that the runoff election is open, too. It’s honestly not that big of a deal, it’s just something I remember vividly from the last election, and I find it remarkable that neither of the major parties has sought to close that loophole, especially given Alabama’s history of one-party rule.
Let me illustrate the issue with the real-life events that happened in the last election year. In 2010 there was a particular Republican candidate I wanted to win the governor’s race (I don’t even remember his name now), but it was a crowded field with seven or eight candidates. The candidate I wanted to win won first place in the primary. The second place winner was a surprise – Robert Bentley, a nondescript dermatologist from Tuscaloosa whose main claim to fame was that he once treated Bear Bryant (If you wonder why that matters, you’ve never been to Alabama).
There was a strong Democrat race for governor as well, but it was between two candidates. The one candidate won the primary, and that was it. So we had another six weeks of the two Republican governor candidates duking it out on the campaign trail and endless TV and radio commercials. Meanwhile here in Morgan County, if I remember right, there was one minor county office and one minor state office – secretary of state or something like that – on the Democrat ballot. Naturally the Republican governor’s race was the main focus of the public and the media during the campaign cycle.
When I went to the polls on the runoff election day, I was the 77th person to vote at that precinct, Decatur Baptist Church on Danville Road. I know this because I signed my name on the 76th blank to receive a Republican ballot. When I looked at the Democrat sheet, there was only one signature. The final results in Morgan County were not that far off from that. More than 90 percent of the votes cast were on the Republican ticket. I know Decatur is mostly a Republican town, especially the area I happened to be voting in that year. But you can’t tell me Republicans outnumber Democrats 76 to 1, or even 9 to 1.
And the numbers weren’t that unbalanced because all the Democrats stayed home. The runoff turnout was only slightly smaller than the primary turnout. No, the results were that way because lots of Democrats voted in the Republican primary. And I think it is safe to assume the vast majority of them voted for Bentley, the more moderate of the two candidates. So was I disappointed that my candidate didn’t win? Yeah. Would he have done that much different from what Bentley has done the last 3 ½ years? I don’t know, probably not.
But the point is that is not the purpose of the primary election. The primary election is for party supporters to choose for themselves. That’s why you have separate ballots. I remember some people saying at the time that Bentley was the Democrats’ real nominee for governor. I wouldn’t go that far, but it does reflect a flaw in the system. People may see a candidate who wins this way as a less than legitimate candidate.
There is an easy solution for this that would preserve the open primary system: have an open primary and a closed runoff. When you take a ballot in the primary election, the poll worker could note which party you took. It wouldn’t be that hard. Then when you come to the polls for the runoff, the poll worker looks at the letter printed beside your name and hands you the same party’s ballot that you selected in the primary. No one would be allowed to vote in the runoff who hadn’t voted in the primary, unless there is something like a statewide ballot issue, and they would only receive that ballot. No one would be obligated to take the same party ballot in the primary in the next election cycle. This would preserve the open primary system.
I’m not a native Alabamian, but frankly I am surprised neither party has “fixed” this already. Since the Civil War Alabama’s government has been characterized by one-party rule. By one-party rule I mean the governor and the majority of both houses of the legislature and the Supreme Court have been all of one party. It hasn’t happened every election cycle, but most of the time it has. You would think that with that much control of the legislative process the party in charge would have kept such a situation as I described above from taking place. But they haven’t. Maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe it is a way to preserve the voice of the people in a one-party system. But neither of the main parties is concerned as much with the will of the people as they are with preserving power. That’s why I’m surprised the runoffs are open.
Don’t forget to vote today if you are in Alabama!