By Tom Still

MADISON – Let’s say you’ve never been a Democrat but you think Barack Obama is a prophet of change. Or you’re an apolitical soccer mom who feels moved to vote for Hillary Clinton, just because it’s time. Or you’re a political independent who noticed that some cultural conservatives can’t stand Republican John McCain, which is reason enough for you to vote for him.

Welcome to Wisconsin’s “open” primary. It’s one of the few presidential contests in which voters are actually encouraged to color outside the partisan lines.

If predictions are correct and 35 percent of Wisconsin’s 4.1 million eligible voters cast ballots in the Feb. 19 presidential primary, it will not only represent one of the largest primary turnouts in state history – but one of the largest voting percentages in the nation this campaign year.

The procedure driving the large turnout will be Wisconsin’s open primary, which means voters need not register as Democrats or Republicans or otherwise declare any partisan preferences. Each voter is given the ballots of all parties and must decide which ballot to cast in the secrecy of the voting booth. There are safeguards to prevent the voter from marking more than one ballot.

Established more than 100 years ago, the Wisconsin primary is one of the few truly open primaries in the United States. As such, it will be closely watched by political reporters and pundits who wonder how Obama, Clinton, McCain and the rest might perform in a contest that roughly resembles a general election.

Wisconsin’s open primary almost lost its special status, however, when the Democratic National Committee decided after the 1972 presidential election that it no longer wanted those pesky independent and crossover Republican voters polluting their primary. The DNC began a long and sometimes bitter campaign to “close” Wisconsin’s primary so that only registered Democrats could take part in the process of selecting Democratic presidential delegates.

The national party actually succeeded for a while. Citing its right to “freedom of association” under the 1st and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, the DNC took the fight all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in 1981 it was permissible for the national party to refuse to seat delegates elected in an open primary.

That set up the bizarre situation in 1984 in which Wisconsin held a presidential primary election (Republicans never challenged the process) as well as Democratic Party delegate selection caucuses a few days later. The results, somewhat predictably, were split.

The Democratic primary was won by Gary Hart with about 46 percent of the vote, compared to Walter Mondale with 43 percent and Jesse Jackson with about 10 percent. An exit poll showed that 8 percent of the people who voted in the Democratic primary were Republicans, 29 percent were independents and 56 percent were Democrats. Republicans and independents favored Hart, the exit poll concluded.

The caucuses, open only to Democrats, were won by Mondale with 54 percent of the vote to Hart’s 29 percent and Jackson’s 15 percent.

Mondale was hammered by Republican Ronald Reagan in the general election (Reagan carried Wisconsin) and the Democratic power-brokers began to wonder if their efforts to cram national party rules down the throats of Wisconsin voters was really a smart idea. In March 1986, the DNC reversed its position and allowed Wisconsin Democrats to select their national convention delegates based on an open primary versus a closed caucus. It’s been that way ever since.

The fight over Wisconsin’s open primary is ancient history to most state voters today, but it stands as a lesson in how the Constitution envisioned states crafting their own voting rules to comply with local political values and culture. And despite the fact it comes 38th in the 2008 pecking order, Wisconsin’s primary will matter this year – precisely because it is open to every eligible voter.

Still is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison. He is the president of the Wisconsin Technology Council.