Louisiana is revisiting a decades-old debate of whether to jettison its “jungle primary” election system that regularly sees the state selecting its members of Congress later than the rest of the country.
The Legislature briefly changed the congressional elections process in the mid-2000s, but quickly reversed course amid complaints about voter confusion and cost. But the debate is resurfacing, prompted by new legislative leaders and encouraged by several members of Louisiana’s congressional delegation.
A task force created by Senate Republican leader Sharon Hewitt to make recommendations will submit those for consideration in the regular session that starts in April.
Any widespread redesign would represent a sea change for Louisiana politics.
Opinions already are split. The logistics are complex, and the costs can vary widely depending on approach. States have a myriad of primary systems, though Louisiana remains unique in its approach, according to data from the National Conference of State Legislatures.
“There are all sorts of ways to do it, but I would argue we chose the worst way,” Republican U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise told the Closed Party Primary Task Force.
Since 1975, with the exception of a three-year span for congressional elections, Louisiana has had an open primary system. All candidates, regardless of party, run against each other on the ballot for local, statewide and congressional elections. If no one candidate tops 50% in that primary, the top two vote-getters advance to a head-to-head runoff.
That can force Louisiana’s congressional elections to be decided in a December runoff — a month after nearly every other state has settled its seats. This year, for example, Republican Luke Letlow didn’t win the 5th District seat representing northeast and central Louisiana until Dec. 5.
Scalise said Louisiana’s newest congressional delegation members often miss orientation sessions where committee assignments are negotiated, people build relationships and offices are assigned.
“It doesn’t mean they’re not going to be successful members of Congress. It just means they start that much further behind everybody else,” he said.
U.S. Rep. Clay Higgins, a Republican first elected in a December runoff, agreed: “I was at a disadvantage that I really wasn’t aware that I was going to face.”
Not every member of Louisiana’s congressional delegation is pushing for change, however.
“I missed orientation, and my life was still the same,” said GOP U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy, when asked about the debate. “I’m kind of indifferent, but if someone could show me a system that did not cost more, I’d consider it.”
Years ago, Louisiana tried to hold its congressional primary in October, with runoffs in November. The state got into trouble with federal courts, because it regularly elected members of Congress before the rest of the nation.
But if Louisiana officials want to settle the congressional seats in November, agreeing on an approach could provoke divisions.
Should Louisiana move to a straight closed primary system where candidates from each political party run against each other, and the top vote-getting candidate from each party reaches a general election? Where do no-party voters fit? Should the state find another way to shift the calendar for congressional races while maintaining an open primary?
And should different elections have different rules, since only the congressional races have the calendar problem?
The debate is making for strange bedfellows.
Republican Attorney General Jeff Landry supports closed primaries, as does prominent Democratic Sen. Cleo Fields. Higgins was more reticent, saying he worried closed primaries would amplify the importance of money and party establishment in elections.
Fields, a former congressman, successfully persuaded lawmakers in 2006 to create a closed party primary for congressional elections. The provisions were in place for the 2008 and 2010 U.S. House and U.S. Senate elections.
But lawmakers reinstated the open primary system by the 2012 congressional elections. Supporters of the reversion back to open primaries said Louisiana had too many elections and they wanted to save the state money. They also said voters were confused about differing rules for elections.
Already some resistance to the latest closed primary debate has emerged from local elections officials. St. Tammany Parish Clerk of Court Melissa Henry said a majority of Louisiana’s clerks of court voted in a recent meeting to oppose a switch.
“It disenfranchises voters,” Henry said. “We’re on the front line, and people do not understand why they can’t vote for who they want to vote for.”