Just this once, Republicans in Illinois' heavily Democratic 2nd Congressional District have some real power.
But will they use it?
Voters in the South Side and south suburban district will go the polls Tuesday for the special primary election necessitated by the resignation of Jesse Jackson Jr., whose extravagant transgressions and downfall have exhausted the thesaurus of every writer in town.
More than a dozen Democratic hopefuls will be on the party's primary ballot, though most observers believe the race will come down to a close contest among former state Rep. Robin Kelly, former U.S. Rep. Debbie Halvorson and Chicago Ald. Anthony Beale, 9th.
And all observers know that the winner of that race will cruise to victory in April.
So even though there are five candidates on the Republican primary ballot, casting a vote for any one of them will be — how to put this? — a purely symbolic act.
To get into the game, to have a real voice in choosing their next congressman, Republican voters must ask for Democratic ballots, then select the least objectionable yet still viable candidate.
Is this legal? Sure! Though primary elections are ostensibly party functions, Illinois election law allows voters to select a party when they show up at the polls and doesn't demand consistency.
Is it ethical? Yes! As long as you're crossing lines to vote for the opposition party candidate you most prefer. It's ethically dubious, however, to try to make mischief by voting for the candidate you think would be most likely to lose in the general election.
Could it prove decisive? Absolutely! Though only about 20 percent of 2nd District voters are Republicans, if a sizable number of them get behind a particular Democrat, they could easily make the difference in a tight race, particularly in a multicandidate field when voter turnout is light.
Which 2nd District Democrat would it help? Smart money says Halvorson, whose conservative stance on gun control has been a major issue in the campaign.
Will it happen? Probably not. Just about every time there's a hot primary in a lopsided district, analysts ponder the potential impact of crossover voters. And just about every time their number is small and their impact is negligible, though Tuesday's primary ballot is so otherwise empty that this time could be different.
Is there a less sneaky way for Republicans to have a say? Yes, but we'd have to change how we run primary elections. I favor the idea of a blanket primary ballot that includes every candidate from every party. The top two vote getters then get to square off in the general election, even if they're from the same party.
What are the advantages of top-two primaries? I'll give you the top two. One, they promise a moderating effect on our politics since in the end they disadvantage fringe candidates who appeal mainly to base voters. And two, the winner, in the end, always gets more than 50 percent of the vote.
What are the disadvantages? Again, the top two: One, major parties don't like them because they weaken the value of party identity for candidates. Two, minor parties don't like them because the top-two systems relegate them to primaries, when voters are least likely to be paying attention, and keep them off the ballot altogether in general elections.
What are the alternatives? A major one is the "instant run-off" election using preferential voting, in which voters list their first, second and sometimes third or fourth choices all the way down the ballot.
If no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the first-choice votes, then the second-choice votes are added in as the bottom candidates are kicked out until one of the remaining contenders tops 50 percent.
Where can I find out more? I've posted a lot of information, including court opinions, about top-two and instant run-off voting at Change of Subject online.
Speaking of the 2nd Congressional District race, the Tribune candidate profile of Democrat Robin Kelly last week contained a quote from her so amusingly self-important that I couldn't resist posting it online as a stand-alone item: