Issue January 20, 2009

Let them all vote?

When the 2009 session of the General Assembly opens Feb. 3, there will be a bill before the House Committee on Elections that would allow registered independents to vote in Kentucky primaries.

This may not seem like a big deal at first glance, but it could dramatically alter elections across the commonwealth, particularly in its biggest city.

House Bill 17 would change election law to allow registered independents to vote in one party’s primary. Jimmy Higdon, R-Lebanon, sponsored the bill, at a constituent’s request.

“I’m a firm believer in people participating in elections, and we take a segment of the population that we completely bar from voting, and that’s the independents during the primary,” Higdon says. “Some people will say, you know, they have a choice, they could join one of the parties and vote during the primary. It just seems to me that it’s a logical thing to do, to allow people to participate in that.”

Higdon says Rep. Darryl Owens, D-Louisville, who chairs the Elections Committee, has promised him a hearing on the bill, but that’s as far as it has gone. (Owens couldn’t be reached for comment.)

There are about 12,500 registered voters of each party in Higdon’s district, and some 1,000 listed as “other” — Kentucky does not track independent or third-party voters, other than to say they’re not of the two-party system.

Louisville and Northern Kentucky have the state’s highest concentrations of “other” voters. Rep. Joe Fischer, a Fort Thomas Republican, is a vice-chairman of the Elections Committee (the other, it just so happens, is Louisville Democrat Ron Weston). Fischer, who hasn’t read the bill yet, says he’s not likely to vote for such an initiative, but he’s happy to give it a hearing.

“Generally, I’m kind of a strong two-party system defender,” he says. “I sense that this might distort or potentially weaken that strong system we currently have, because crossover voters could vote for a weaker candidate in the primary and then cross over and elect their party’s candidate in the general.”

That’s why we have this system in the first place: to protect the two parties from such voter tampering, like when Rush Limbaugh encouraged Indiana Republicans to vote for Hillary Clinton in the Democratic presidential primary, just to extend the agonizing primary fight. He called it “Operation Chaos.”

In fact, Kentucky has traditionally been rather unfriendly to those who don’t self-identify as Republican or Democrat. For instance, Kentucky requires independent candidates to gather 100 signatures from constituents in their district to get on a ballot. Members of a major party don’t endure that rigmarole.

While it’s perfectly within reason to assume members of political parties should nominate their own candidates, some current circumstances have muddied that logic. Perhaps the most recent example was the race for the District 35 state Senate seat last year, in which independent Scott Ritcher, a writer, musician and former mayoral candidate (Reform Party), ran against Democratic incumbent Denise Harper Angel.

Ritcher gathered a couple handfuls more than the 100 signatures required; it turned out — after the Kentucky Democratic Party and Angel’s campaign investigated — that not all of them were from within the crude, bizarre boundaries of District 35. Angel sued to remove Ritcher from the ballot, and won.

Looking at it on a map, it’s obvious 35 is gerrymandered. So are a lot of districts, especially in more populated areas. What that translates to, in real terms, is that the winner of a party primary often is a guarantee in a general election. Angel is a perfect example: Her district is more than 70 percent Democratic. That means (ignoring, for purposes of argument, his failure to obtain 100 legitimate signatures) if Ritcher could’ve challenged Angel in a more concentrated election, he could’ve had a shot at displacing the Democrat — Angel herself is irrelevant in this scenario.

“In a lot of places in Kentucky, one party is in control,” Ritcher says. “So independents have a more relevant stake in it than other places where the two parties are more equally matched.”

Ritcher’s suggestion to help equalize the vote is to redraw district boundaries, which is probably as unlikely to occur by the hands of incumbents as an independents’ challenge to the status quo.

Fischer says to expect heavy opposition from party leadership.

Stay tuned, indies.