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The first time I could legally vote was in 1984, when Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush were wrapping up their first term as president and vice president. They would face former vice president Walter Mondale and Geraldine Ferraro, a congresswoman from New York and the first woman ever nominated for the presidential ticket.

Bill Clinton was governor of Arkansas. He was in his second term, back when the state's terms lasted only two years. A measure on that year's ballot changed future terms to four years. That November, Clinton handily defeated Republican Woody Freeman.

U.S. Sen. David Pryor fended off a challenge by central Arkansas' U.S. Rep. Ed Bethune, who the prior year had spoken at my Eagle Scout ceremony at Geyer Springs United Methodist Church in Little Rock. Apparently, no crowd was too small for Bethune to work for potential votes.

Sen. Dale Bumpers was the other U.S. senator at the time. The other congressmen for Arkansas were Bill Alexander, John Paul Hammerschmidt and Beryl Anthony Jr. The latter three were unopposed on the 1984 ballot.

That was the year Tommy Robinson, a Democrat, got elected to Congress in Bethune's place. He was the infamous Pulaski County sheriff who chained state inmates to the front gate of an Arkansas prison when his local jail was overcrowded and state prison officials wouldn't accept the prisoners. He also jailed, for a short while, the county judge on an allegation of obstruction of governmental operations after the judge denied Robinson's request for more money to run the sheriff's office. Five years later, he became a Republican and ran for governor, losing in the GOP primary to Sheffield Nelson.

According to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture, national GOP Chairman Lee Atwater viewed Robinson as a candidate who could fight a rough campaign against Clinton, who Atwater viewed as a potential presidential rival for George H.W. Bush's future plans. Vote totals in the Republican primary were unusually high, the encyclopedia recalls, in part due to a stop-Robinson movement in which Democrats reportedly switched to voting in the Republican primary to protect Clinton.

Back in 1984, even before I'd finished my senior year in high school, my first ballot was in the spring primary. I had prepared by getting to know candidates, but my young mind had not yet grasped one obvious fact about primaries. When the poll worker said "Democrat or Republican," I was a little offended. I thought ballots were supposed to be secret. It took a minute to sink in that primaries weren't like general elections. If I wanted to help pick a party's nominees, of course I'd have to identify which party I wanted to do that for.

I can't for the life of me remember which party I picked.

If State Rep. Jim Dotson of Bentonville has his way, Arkansas voters won't be given a choice on Election Day.

He proposed a bill in the last legislative session to close Arkansas' open primary system. It went no where in the session, but in a legislative committee meeting in Eureka Springs this week, it will be considered for interim study. That would mean hearings and other preparations for its possible consideration in the next legislative session.

The bill would entitle a voter to cast a ballot only in the primary of the political party designated on his voter registration. If someone wants to vote Republican, for example, he would have to be registered as a Republican no later than 30 days before a primary. It would be unlawful for a voter to cast a ballot in a political party primary in which the voter is not registered.

I'm not a "member" of any party nor do I affiliate with either. Last year, I voted in the Republican primary. I have long wondered why I, someone who isn't staunchly in either party's corner, have a role in selecting the party's standard bearer for president or for any other office.

Open primaries are said to draw in more independents and more accurately reflect what voters generally want to see in the candidates they'll be asked to consider in a general election. But shouldn't a political party want to put forward the candidates that best represent what the party is about?

And the big concern about open primaries, as supposedly happened in the Tommy Robinson situation, is that voters from the opposing party can switch primaries if they believe it's better to disrupt the opposing party's nomination than to influence their own party's selections.

Closed primaries would no doubt make the nominees behave more like Democrats or Republicans. Some would say it would drive them closer to each party's core supporters. The choice in the general election would be more starkly defined, but some prefer a system that drives the candidates in both parties toward middle ground.

I've got no problem with closed primaries, but I'd want lawmakers to do something they'd probably never do: Lower barriers to participation by candidates from third parties. If the state's system is going to try to force people into party affiliations, Arkansans ought to have more choices than just Democrats and Republicans.

Commentary on 07/10/2017

Print Headline: Republican or Democrat?

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