Primarily speaking

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Earlier this week, Alabama held its primary elections. Republican voters choose their candidates.Democratic voters choose their candidates. And one of the great reforms of the Progressive Era will have done what it was intended to do.
Early in the 20th Century, reformers got fed up with party bosses and bigwigs and wealthy special interests meeting in smoke-filled back rooms to pick the candidates they figured would do the most for them when elected.
So they pushed through laws that let the people pick the candidates.
Thus the primary election system was born.
At the time Alabama had politicians who wanted to appear “progressive” without really being so. Having candidates picked by “the people” in a primary election rather than by Big Mules and Black Belt planters in a back room at the Party convention, seemed a pretty harmless reform. Why harmless? Simple. The Democratic Party was the only party.
The 1901 constitution had disfranchised  blacks and poor whites, leaving the party firmly in the hands of the Big Mules and Black Belt planters who ran things before the progressive primary reform was adopted. What was left of the electorate could be counted on to pick the “right” candidate.
And they did.
Even though the electorate broadened over the years, new voters were largely cut from the same cloth as the old.  A quick glance at a list of Alabama governors and legislators before and after the primary system was put in place confirms this.
Moreover, seldom did a Democrat who won the primary have to face a Republican in the general election.  There’s weren’t any.
So in most cases the primary was “the” election – win it and you were in.
Winning was not easy, or cheap, for often there were multiple primary candidates for each office, so if no one got a majority in the election, a runoff was necessary.  This meant more campaigning and more election expenses.
Always looking for a way to cut costs, democracy be damned, Alabama instituted the practice of “Second Choice Voting.” Under this innovation the voter would mark the ballot twice – once indicating which candidate was their first choice and, if that one did not win, which was their alternate.  If no candidate got a majority of first choice votes, the second choice votes were counted in and a winner was declared.  No runoff necessary.
The scheme was eventually abandoned, but for a while it added yet another wrinkle to Alabama’s primary system.
Because the stakes were so high, primary campaigns became bitter contests, so bitter that the Democrats added what was called the “sore loser law,” which prohibited losers in the primary from running as an independent in the general election.
Then, in the 1960s, two events, not unrelated, combined to bring the Alabama primary system closer to what a primary system was supposed to be.
The Federal laws and court rulings that resulted from the Civil Rights Movement added a host of new voters to the rolls, voters who could not be counted on to  elect the Big Mule/planter types that had dominated the Democratic Party  and the state.
Sensing this, those leaders and the interests they represented, abandoned the Democratic Party, to which most of the new voters gravitated, and created an Alabama Republican party very much in the image of the Alabama Democrats of old.
Now each party needed to select its own candidates to face each other in the general election, so each party needed a primary.
And that is what they got. It was not an easy birth, and as is usual in Alabama politics, there were unintended consequences.
As late as 1986, many Alabama voters seemed unsure to which Party they owed their allegiance.  That year over 1 million votes were cast in the Democratic primary while fewer than 30,000 voted in the Republican.  In a tight contest for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination Attorney General Charles Graddick beat out Lt. Gov. Bill Baxley by some 8,000 votes.  But instead of confirming Graddick’s victory the state Democratic Party’s election contest committee invalidated it. The committee decided that thousands of Republicans crossed over and voted for Graddick.  So they took Graddick off the Democratic ballot and put Baxley on.
In the general election outraged Alabamians deserted the Democrats and elected the state’s first Republican governor since Reconstruction.
Hunt was neither a Big Mule nor a Black Belt planter, but he did not challenge their control.
Since then, both party primaries have produced candidates that are as much a reflection of the interests of party leadership as champions of their rank-and-file voters.
Today the GOP is well on its way to dominating the state the way the Democratic Party did a century ago. As a consequence, the Republican Primary is becoming “the” election.
How close it is to reaching that goal will be seen in November.
Harvey H. (“Hardy”) Jackson is Professor Emeritus of History at Jacksonville State University. He can  be reached at hjackson@cableone.net.

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