Should Louisiana hold closed primaries? A state task force is considering the option

By David Jacobs | The Center Square

Louisiana’s unique election system puts the state’s new members of Congress, and therefore the state as a whole, at a disadvantage, U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise said Friday.

Scalise addressed a task force the Louisiana Legislature created to consider whether the state should move to closed primaries and what the new system would look like if changes are made.

Currently, Louisiana does not hold party primaries. Instead, the state holds open primaries in which every candidate runs regardless of party.

If one candidate gets more than half of the votes in the first round, they win outright. If not, the top two move on to a runoff.

There was a time when Louisiana would hold congressional primaries in October and the runoff if needed on the national Election Day in November. The problem was that incumbents usually won outright in the first round, and the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that congressional elections generally should not be resolved prior to Election Day.

Now, the state holds the first round in November with a runoff a month later. This year, every incumbent was reelected in the first round, though U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond is stepping down to join President-elect Joe Biden’s administration.

But Luke Letlow, who won an open seat vacated by Ralph Abraham, had to go to a runoff, which means he was elected a month after every other member of Congress.

Scalise said that month is critical. Letlow missed leadership elections, orientation meetings, and the opportunity to hire staff that have been snapped up by other members. He is also a month behind on building relationships with his colleagues and making his case for desired committee assignments.

Scalise said he was confident Letlow would figure things out and be an effective representative. And as Abraham’s former chief of staff, Letlow already is familiar with Congress.

But it’s a consistent problem, and whether Louisiana moves to closed primaries or not, lawmakers ought to ensure the election is resolved in November, Scalise argued.

U.S. Rep. Clay Higgins agreed a November resolution would be for the best. But he raised concerns about closed party primaries while stressing that he was keeping an open mind.

Higgins said he was worried that closed primaries would extend the campaign season and force incumbents to take time away from the job. He said the change might increase the influence of party leaders and require raising more money, which could put an outsider candidate at a disadvantage.

State Sen. Sharon Hewitt countered that closed primaries actually cost less because the candidate only has to target their message to members of one party.

Hewitt and Attorney General Jeff Landry said voters and candidates would benefit from having more than a month between the primary and general election. Landry said voters would have a chance to “reset” and focus on the winners. Those winners would have time to “mend fences” with other candidates and raise money, Hewitt said.

Melissa Henry, who represents the state’s clerks of court on the task force, said her association took a vote and found that most members opposed moving to closed primaries.

“It disenfranchises voters,” she said. “People do not understand why they can’t vote for who they want to vote for.”