Miss. Democrats ask federal judge to allow lawsuit to go to trial

Published 9:07 pm Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Attorneys for plaintiffs wanting to keep non-Democrats from voting in Democratic Party primaries have asked a federal judge to let a trial go on, as scheduled.

There is disagreement within the Democratic Party about the lawsuit, which seeks to restrict primary voting only to people who plan to support the party’s nominee in a general election.

U.S. District Judge W. Allen Pepper has set the case for trial July 30 in Greenville.

The attorney general’s office, on behalf of the three-member State Board of Election Commissioners, asked Pepper in January to dismiss the lawsuit. On March 12, the Democratic Party asked Pepper to deny the state’s request.

Pepper has given the attorney general until April 6 to file a final brief supporting its motion to throw out the lawsuit.

Mississippi voters do not register by party, and that opens the question of how the Democrats can try to restrict who casts ballots in their primary. The courts have ruled that people cannot vote in a Democratic primary and then turn around and vote in Republican runoff, or vice versa.

“With no party registration, there is no act of switching your registration,” said Joseph Parker, a political science professor at the University of Southern Mississippi. “Everybody in Mississippi is a Republican or a Democrat — it is a psychological thing. If you think you are, you are.”

Parker said Democrats are dealing with the reality that they have lost their hold on public offices with the growth of the GOP.

“The Democratic Party is still kind of struggling, trying to find its way when it doesn’t have a monopoly any more on who gets into public office,” he said.

Some longtime Democratic Party members say limiting participation in primaries will undermine conservative Democrats by turning away droves of voters who say they cast ballots based on candidates’ personalities rather than political philosophies.

State law says political parties conduct their own primaries.

The state Board of Election Commissioners consists of Gov. Haley Barbour, who’s a Republican; and Attorney General Jim Hood and Secretary of State Eric Clark, who are Democrats.

In the motion to dismiss the lawsuit, Assistant Attorney General Harold Pizzetta III said the Democrats have not shown how they have been harmed by state law.

The party has admitted “that it is unaware of any voters who participated in the Democratic Party primary but who did not support the principles of the Democratic Party or who did not intend to support the Democratic Party nominee,” Pizzetta said in the motion.

Pizzetta said that law and party registration “are merely unenforceable promises to support the Democratic Party.”

“Any voter who is not registered as a Democrat but votes in the Democratic Party primary has affiliated himself with the party through a more important means (voting) than a registered party member who does not vote,” Pizzetta said.

Democrats have argued that a seldom-enforced state law that says: “No person shall be eligible to participate in any primary election unless he intends to support the nominations made in the primary in which he participates.”

That law is what prompted the party’s executive committee to boot Insurance Commissioner George Dale and others off the Aug. 7 ballot. Dale and the others have gone to court to be placed back on the ballot. No hearing dates have been announced.

The Democratic Party’s efforts to control local elections also is at the center of a lawsuit filed by the Justice Department against Noxubee County Democratic leader Ike Brown. The government has accused Brown of trying to limit whites’ participation in local elections. A decision in the lawsuit has not been announced.

Brown says the Democrats’ lawsuit could force a court ruling about whether certain voters can be turned away in primaries. One of the Justice Department accusations against him, he says, is that he publicized a list of people he said should not vote in Noxubee County Democratic primaries because they support Republicans.

Ellis Turnage of Cleveland, who represents the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said in a March 12 document opposing its dismissal that Mississippi law compels the Democratic Party “to permit nonmembers to vote in its primaries, allows party raiding and causes the dilution of Democratic voting strength in primary elections.”

Turnage said the law thwarts the party’s effort to select candidates for the general election ballot who best represent the party’s interests. He said the party — not the state — should decide which voters participate in its primaries.

“A political party’s determination of the boundaries of its own association, and of the structure which best allows it to pursue its political goals, is protected by the Constitution. Neither voters nor political candidates can force a political party to accept them against the will of the party,” Turnage said.