Time to rethink N.C. elections?

The recent Republican U.S. Senate primary in Mississippi should spur creative thinking about North Carolina’s election system. Other states offer models in which election results more clearly reflect the will of all the voters.

In Mississippi, you’ll recall, Sen. Thad Cochran beat his tea party-backed challenger by wooing blacks who typically vote Democratic. He could do so because Mississippi doesn’t register voters by party. Voters are just voters, and they choose on Election Day which party’s primary they’ll vote in.

In Mississippi, as in North Carolina, if you vote in one party’s primary you can’t vote in another party’s primary runoff. What made Cochran’s strategy workable was the low turnout in the Democratic primary. Blacks who skipped it were good targets for Cochran’s argument that they’d be happier with his brand of conservatism than with his challenger’s more radical views. Cochran attracted enough black voters to win a squeaker.

Some Republicans considered it unfair for voters with Democratic views to determine the outcome of a GOP primary. In fact, those voters simply seized the opportunity provided by state law to help choose their next senator. Mississippi is heavily Republican. A Democrat is unlikely to win a statewide election, so they decided to vote in the race that mattered – the Republican primary.

What might North Carolina learn from that? In races for the legislature and Congress here, almost every seat is safe for one party or the other. If you’re a Republican in a heavily Democratic district, or vice versa, you have little say in who’ll represent you. The dominant party picks the ultimate winner in its primary.

The wild card here is voters who register “unaffiliated.” They may choose on election day which party’s primary they’ll vote in. Some 27 percent of N.C. voters are unaffiliated, and that category is growing while registration of both Democrats and Republicans is shrinking. What if, in North Carolina as in Mississippi, every voter were unaffiliated? Then they could vote in the primary whose races mattered most to them.

Voters would have even greater freedom if North Carolina adopted the “top-two” system used by many cities and the states of Washington, California, and Louisiana. All candidates run in the same primary, and all voters may vote. If nobody wins, the top two candidates – regardless of party – meet in a runoff. That would give every person a vote that matters. It would be a great improvement over the present system, in which your vote matters only if you’re in your district’s dominant party.

No change should be made without thorough debate, of course, but that won’t happen easily. Democrats and Republicans control our election system. Unless pushed, they won’t change a system that benefits them.