Editor's View: Mississippi’s Party Foul Impacts Starkville

SDN Editor Ryan Phillips

It may have taken a few months for municipal election season to get truly contentious, but now fingers are being pointed all around town when they should be pointed toward Jackson.

One vote out of just more than 200 cast determined the unofficial outcome of the Starkville Board of Aldermen Ward 1 Republican Primary, with political newcomer Jason Camp beating incumbent Ben Carver 104-103.

With tired, bloodshot eyes from a night of little sleep following Primary Day, I stood with the exhausted and restless candidates early Wednesday morning as it became clear that months on the campaign trail had come down to just one vote. For those that didn’t follow the GOP campaigns in Ward 1, both candidates were highly involved with constituents and deserved a better showing than they got. You can blame voter turnout, sure, but the voters were there at the National Guard Armory all day Tuesday … just in a different line.

To an outsider, it may look like both candidates in the Ward 1 Republican Primary simply failed to galvanize the voters. But the real reason for the low turnout was because voters were forced to choose between voting as a Republican for their representation on the Board or as a Democrat if they wanted a say-so in the mayor’s race. Voters are not allowed to participate in the primaries for more than one political party, due to state law, and with an exclusively Democratic ticket in the three-candidate mayoral race, those in Ward 1 were forced to choose between one race or the other on Primary Day.

State election laws promoting party politics caused the dust-up in Ward 1, and it will be state election officials with the Mississippi Secretary of State’s Office responsible for sorting it out. So, if you want to bring any change to this antiquated and divisive system, it starts with maintaining an open dialogue with your state legislators. They want to get re-elected, and if enough constituents eloquently communicate their disapproval over a part of the system, then said legislator may be willing to work toward a solution to the problem or risk being out of a job.

But like voting, it starts with you.

Both candidates featured on the Ward 1 Republican ticket are exemplary citizens and either would make for a suitable alderman (as would Democratic challenger Christine Williams), but when only around 200 people participate in a primary because of another party primary going on at the same time, the sample size is just too small to be truly representative of the people in Ward 1.

In the Ward 1 Democratic Primary, 426 voters cast ballots in the mayor’s race - a total more than twice the sum of all votes in the Republican Primary. We may be having a completely different conversation right now If even just a handful of those voters opted to participate in the Republican Primary. The numbers don’t lie.

The mayoral race will head to a runoff in a couple of weeks and in theory, it's one thunderstorm away from being decided by less than 1,000 people. Getting roughly 3,700 votes out of 13,153 registered voters on Primary Day was a low total, which was only boosted because of the four primary races taking place for Wards 1, 5 and 7 on Tuesday, along with the mayoral primary. Point being, maintaining party lines shouldn’t come before allowing citizens a right to fully participate in the electoral process at the local level.

The decision for Ward 1 voters to cast ballots in the mayoral primary should underscore the notion that people in Starkville - and small town Mississippi for that matter - are far more concerned about the individual they are voting for as opposed to the party at the local level. Party leanings don’t win municipal elections - knocking on doors and being noticeably involved in the community does.

Simply put, what’s the point of party politics at the local level? Is it not just an excuse for schemers on both sides to garner campaign contributions and play small-time politics behind closed doors at our expense?

If the people behind the scenes for both parties at the local level are truly essential for the political guts of the city to function, then it should be assumed that through their hard work on the campaign trail, voter turnout would be a touch higher than the steady downward trend we are seeing across the state and in Starkville. Instead, we are seeing (cut) the local Republican Party cannibalizes itself, while the Democratic Party dominates City Hall to the point of apathy.

We don’t need these partisan personalities to have a functioning local government. All we need are voters willing to participate in the process.

It’s clear the system is what it is and we as residents of Starkville can’t change it by griping at the local level. But the anomaly that occurred in the Ward 1 GOP Primary happened all too easily for it to be chalked up to mere circumstance and left unaddressed.

If being a card carrying member of a political party isn’t necessary to vote in a party primary, then what does it matter if someone votes in one Republican Primary for Alderman and Democratic Primary for Mayor? Especially when Republicans have historically failed to obtain the city’s highest office.

In a town the size of Starkville, this shouldn’t be the case. What’s more, the town of Starkville has never had a Republican mayor, which further underscores the uselessness of the party system at the local level. Historical trends are a mere grain of sand in the overall argument, but it should be considered that Democrats have more than maintained their foothold in Starkville through the years - with conservative leaning candidates opting to run on the liberal ticket just because running as a Republican - in many but not all cases - would be a political death sentence in Starkville. You don’t have to be a lifelong citizen of Starkville to understand that. Just spend some time on the campaign trail at the local level and you will see just how little a role party politics plays in local campaigning and governance.

Through Tuesday afternoon and into Wednesday, I have had more voters than I can count tell me they saw Republican-leaning neighbors, friends and co-workers standing in line to participate in the Democratic Primary for mayor, while the line to participate in the Ward 1 Republican Primary was thin the entire day. I think those same people - if given the opportunity - would have far more confidence in the Democratic process if allowed to participate in all of the primaries that will impact them, regardless of party lines if they are not required to be a member of the party they are casting a ballot for.

If you feel the way I do, take action by encouraging your state policymakers to reconsider the divisive partisan construct currently in place for our local elections, in favor of giving citizens the right to vote for the candidates they deem to be the most qualified for the job.

Exercising your full voting rights should never have to come down to a choice.