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Sunday, September 21, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 59.0° F  Light Drizzle
The Daily
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Madland: Don't mess with Wisconsin's open primary system
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Last week's primary election was pretty sleepy, at least in Dane County. If you didn't live on the west side, the most exciting outcome was Susan Happ's winning the Democratic nomination for Attorney General over her Harley-less opponents.

But over in Milwaukee County, there was a bit more on the ballot. In the Democratic primary for sheriff, incumbent and frequent Fox News guest David Clarke defeated challenger Chris Moews, a lieutenant in the Milwaukee Police Department.

The issue is that the winner of the Democratic primary isn't much of a Democrat. I abhor the term "Democrat In Name Only." However, then Clarke goes on radio and says something like this: "All the left is interested in is having the government control every aspect of our lives. Calling for gun control is just another aspect of furthering their socialist agenda." Yeah, that's a DINO.

The other wrinkle in this election is that several prominent Republicans, most notably former governor Tommy Thompson, went on Milwaukee talk radio and encouraged conservatives to vote in the Democratic primary for Clarke.

After Clarke's narrow victory, John Nichols estimated how many Republicans voted in the Democratic primary by comparing Brett Hulsey's results there to the rest of the state. Hulsey ended up getting way more votes in Milwaukee County (29,192 to be exact) than he did in the rest of the state, including his home turf in Dane County. Even if some of those voters were genuine Hulsey supporters -- maybe they love red convertibles -- 20,000 votes would be more than enough to swing the primary.

Some Democrats are angry, and understandably so. They don't like that crossover shenanigans led to a situation where there won't be an actual Democratic policy supporting candidate on the ballot in one of the state's most heavily Democratic counties.

Ed Garvey went so far as to say that there should be some sort of screening to stop pseudo-Dems from getting on the ballot.

That would be a huge mistake.

Even with rare situations like this, Wisconsin's open primary system with low thresholds to get on the ballot is the way to go. With gerrymandering in the legislature and some naturally lopsided county races, the primary is the election. Parties would start by only purging candidates like David "Don't call 911" Clarke, but that power would also enable Democrats and Republicans to anoint a candidate. We wouldn't have needed to bother picking between Lisa Subeck and Mark Clear if the state convention made the choice for us.

If the parties can pick who goes on the ballot and who doesn't, voting verges on becoming pointless. The only recourse for outsider candidates would be to run for a third party -- and who wants to be Ralph Nader?

Speaking of Nader, people blamed him for losing the race for Al Gore but it is the Gore campaign's fault they couldn't build up a more substantial margin against this guy. And if Democrats in Milwaukee County had run a better campaign against Clarke, crossover voters wouldn't have been able to close the gap.

An African-American, Clarke won over a substantial portion of Democratic voters in predominantly black wards who care more about the policing of their neighborhood over talk radio trolling by a conservative sheriff. With a diverse city like Milwaukee, voters won't immediately assume that the white challenger is going to do a better job protecting them, even if that candidate's talking points are better. For example, it isn't like Chris Abele is doing a knockout job as Milwaukee County Executive -- even with a (D) at the end of his name.

The race for sheriff became about gun control, rather than focusing on issues in which Clarke may have been more vulnerable, such as his support for returning to a system of private bail.

Even Glenn Grothman didn't support private bail!

The Democrats in Milwaukee County (and in Dane County) need to remember that the party's candidates don't just automatically get the black vote. It's an important lesson as the state heads into a general election where turnout for Mary Burke and Susan Happ is going to be paramount.

The Democratic Party needs to spend time getting out the vote from all its potential supporters, and not waste time by talking about messing with the primary system.

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