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Sunday, February 5, 2006
PoliColumn: Crossover Voting in Primaries
By Dr. Steven Taylor @ 8:01 am

From today’s Mobile Register

Note: I originally wrote this about a month ago when there was a debate with the Alabama GOP on cross-over voting and it appeared that there would be at least three candidates in the GOP gubernatorial primary. At the moment, it may end up being only Riley and Moore.

Crossover voting has pundits pondering
Sunday, February 05, 2006
Special to the Register

Last month, the executive committee of the Alabama Republican Party reversed itself on a plan to ban “crossover voting” in the second round of the Alabama Republican primary.

Alabama Democrats have long banned crossover voting, and even used the presence of crossover voting to overturn the primary results in 1986.

A question emerges: What is “crossover voting” and why does it exist?

It’s interesting, too, to contemplate what effect the decision would have had if there had been a runoff scenario in the GOP’s gubernatorial primary.

First, though, let’s look at primaries and see how the structure of the Alabama primary system can lead to this situation. There are two key elements: the basic structure of the primary process, and whether there is a majority requirement to win the nomination.

There are, for practical purposes, two categories of primary used in the United States: the open primary and the closed primary.

In simple terms, open primary states allow for voters to decide on primary election day which party they wish to adhere to, by engaging in the selection process for that party’s candidates. A voter goes to the polls and, in the case of Alabama, asks for either the Republican or Democratic ballot.

Other states actually have separate polling locations for each party during the primaries.

Open systems afford voters a great deal of leeway in terms of accessing the nomination process of the major parties, and can be deemed more democratic than closed primaries. The knock on open primaries is that they allow those who might not take a given party seriously a chance to vote in their nomination process.

Party leaders often fear, for example, a scenario in which Party A has no serious primary contest, so its voters choose to vote in Party B’s primary in order to try to select the weakest of Party B’s candidates.

In closed-primary states, voters register their party preference in advance of the elections, and are therefore bound to vote only in their party’s primary. There are variations as to precisely how it works state-to-state, but that’s the basic idea.

Some favor this structure because it requires some reflection on the part of voters before they choose their partisan affiliation, and also it excludes those who might not really consider themselves “members” of the party in question.

There is also the question of what threshold is required for victory: a mere plurality (i.e., the most votes wins) or an absolute majority (i.e., 50 percent plus one). Alabama requires a majority, meaning that if no one gets a majority on primary day, there is a runoff between the top two voter-getters a month later.

When an open primary system meets a majority requirement, the question emerges as to whether the second round should be open to all comers, or just to adherents of that party. In other words, a voter might vote in the Democratic primary on primary day, but then “cross over” to vote in the Republican runoff.

This brings us the political implications of crossover voting. What if there is no runoff in the Democratic Party, yet there is one in the Republican Party? What happens when all those Democratic voters with nothing to vote for on their side cross over and vote in the GOP runoff?

Consider the potential for crossover voting if state Sen. Harri Anne Smith had stayed in the gubernatorial race. (She announced last month that she had decided not to, and instead threw her support to incumbent Gov. Bob Riley.)

If Smith had gotten enough votes to cause a runoff between Riley and Roy Moore, the conventional wisdom was that Democrats who support Moore’s position on the Ten Commandments might have crossed over to vote for Moore over Riley.

Other Democrats, figuring Moore would be the weaker candidate, might have crossed over to vote for Moore in hopes of dethroning Riley via the primary process, rather than have their candidate face him in the general election.

Complicating the scenario, however, is the fact that there’s a contingent of Democratic voters who view Moore as an undesirable governor. They might have crossed over to the GOP primary for the purpose of ensuring that Moore was defeated.

Usually, though, the likelihood that such crossover voting sways the outcome of a runoff is small (barring a massive mobilization effort), given that it is traditionally difficult to get even hard-core partisans to vote in primaries and especially runoffs.

Now, all of this is moot, of course. Either Riley or Moore will secure the nomination outright.

At this point, it appears that the incumbent has the upper hand. Back in October, a Mobile Register/University of South Alabama poll gave Riley a 44-25 lead over Moore. Since that time, the news has been nothing but good for Riley, as state revenue figures and employment numbers have been quite positive.

The governor will be able to run on economic prosperity — and that’s a powerful tool for any incumbent.

Further, the situation is shaping up that the Alabama GOP is going to be fully behind Riley, with Moore running as something of an outcast.

Still, we’ve barely kicked off the campaign season; and the guesses of political scientists are irrelevant once the voters cast their ballots.

Let the games begin.

Filed under: My Columns, Alabama Politics | |Send TrackBack


  1. This is interesting. What would be the logic of banning crossover voting in the first round of a two-round primary, yet allowing it in a runoff (or vice versa)? I pondered this for a bit and could not come up with one.

    Of course, closed vs. open is not really dichotomous, but rather a continuum. New Hampshire, for example, allows independents to decide on election day which party primary they will vote in (at least for presidential primaries). But voters who register with a party are not permitted to cross over. That is sometimes called “semi-open.”

    California and Washington used to have the “blanket primary” which is even more open than what is usually defined as an open primary. Under the blanket primary, a voter can vote for a candidate seeking the Republican nomination for one office, a candidate seeking the Democratic nomination in another, and a Green in yet another on primary day. The US Supreme Court overturned that system, saying (in effect) that it violated the rights of parties as organizations to decide who may associate with them.

    And then, of course, there is the so-called nonpartisan primary-used in Louisiana and supported by some unhappy advocates of California’s now-banned blanket primary. As Steven has noted recently, “nonpartisan primary” is an oxymoron. If there is no partisan criteria in the process at all, it’s not a primary. It’s just a two-round majority runoff in whch the runoff (if needed) might even be between two candidates of the same party.

    California provides now for party option. I forget which party has which rules (and, given how I feel about both parties, I don’t much care), but one of the major parties lets voters who opt for “decline to state” rather than to register with a party to vote in its primary, while the other allows only those registered with the party to vote in its primary.

    Comment by Matthew — Sunday, February 5, 2006 @ 2:40 pm

  2. Indeed on the open/closed dichotomy. But, of course, with 800-1000 words, one can only cover so much :)

    The crossover business, and its ban in the Democratic primary but not the GOP primary has it roots in the state’s one-party past.

    Comment by Dr. Steven Taylor — Sunday, February 5, 2006 @ 10:01 pm

  3. Yes, fortunately for me, you do not restricy my comment space-yet! :-)

    So, let’s try a short version: “Primaries vary in the extent to which voters not registered with a party may participate in the nomination of that party’s candidates in some or all the contests on the ballot.”

    It makes sense (kind of) that a second party that is much smaller than the leading party in the state would want to accept cross-over votes.

    But I’m still not clear on whether I understood correctly that the rules on crossing over are different in the first and second rounds of a primary in Alabama. If I understood correctly, what is the rationale for that?

    Comment by Matthew — Monday, February 6, 2006 @ 6:20 pm

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