What if Mississippi could skip party primaries by allowing state lawmakers to pick candidates?

Published 7:41 am Monday, March 26, 2018

This column was going to start with a scathing yet still somehow funny comment about the competition to succeed Senator Thad Cochran.

While I was trying to figure out how to manage that, I remembered my recent pledge to present only positive vibes during the 40-plus days of Lent. So I scrapped the idea.

Still, with that Senate race in mind, I call your attention to a legislative proposal in Tennessee introduced in bills by Senator Frank Niceley and Representative Susan Lynn.

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“This is probably the most important bill that I’ve ever brought in front of this body,” Niceley said when presenting his version in committee last week. “This bill could save the free world.”

With an intro like that, you might expect the bill to miraculously turn swords into plowshares, end hunger, or mandate free beer at baseball games. It does not.

What it proposes instead is simply to eliminate party primaries for U.S. Senate elections in Tennessee and give the power to select Republican and Democratic candidates to—state legislators.

“Now the naysayers at first say, You’re taking away my right to vote,” Niceley told committee members. “I say, No, I’m giving you your Constitution back.”

Then followed a bit of a history lesson, with Niceley describing how the Progressive Movement in “19-and-13” instituted various government changes, including adding the federal income tax and creating the Federal Reserve.

“The worst thing they did, they changed the way that we selected U.S. senators,” he said. Prior to that, the Constitution entrusted that duty to state legislators.

“That gave the states some control over what Washington did,” Niceley said.

Since states lost that power through the 17th Amendment, he said, it’s been a downhill road for the country, with runaway inflation, the Great Depression, $21 trillion in debt, and women voting. (He didn’t actually mention women voting. He may have thought it. I can’t say.)

In any event, under either bill, joint party caucuses of the Tennessee House and Senate would select their party’s Senate nominee from a list of aspirants compiled by a means to be determined later.

Minor party candidates could still qualify in the usual way, with the election in November. The benefits, Niceley said, would include saving all the time and money now invested in the primary process.

The Founding Fathers, he said, knew that if they failed in their mission to create a new country they would not only be hanged, but tortured. Still, he added, they had the nerve to try.

“And I wonder sometimes, do we have enough nerve to do this,” he asked. “They gave us the power to do this; this is perfectly constitutional.

“Do we have the nerve to take back our Constitution?”

Apparently, no. Niceley’s bill to save the free world did not make it out of committee. Nor did Lynn’s in the House.

But I invite your consideration of how the same idea might play out in Mississippi. What if we could avoid the coming months of infighting and backbiting? For that matter, what if we could have avoided the bitter Republican battle for the Senate in 20-and-14, as Niceley might express it?

I point out here that Mississippi is among the states that have never voted to adopt the 17th Amendment.

You will note the absence of any opinion from me. I call your attention again to that Lenten pledge to play nice.

A pledge that expires next Sunday.