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Louisiana’s New Governor Wants to Bring Back Partisan Primaries. They’ve Been Unpopular in the Past

Gov. Jeff Landry wants to end Louisiana’s jungle primary as early as next week. The change is opposed by some other top Republicans.

Gov. Jeff Landry will push to close primary elections off from voters who aren’t registered as Democrats or Republicans as one of his first acts in office. If successful, the conservative governor would upend an election system used in Louisiana for most of the past 50 years.

Landry carved out an agenda item for the Louisiana Legislature’s special session that begins next week to allow for the state to shift to political party-run primaries instead of its current nonpartisan system.

It’s part of an ambitious eight-day docket that also includes drawing new congressional districts, reworking the Louisiana Supreme Court’s districts, changing campaign finance laws and proposing adjustments to the state constitution’s election laws.

Landry’s office declined Tuesday to provide details about what his primary proposal might look like, but in the past he has pushed for the two major political parties to take control of primary elections for state and federal offices.

Senate President Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, also said Landry is interested in establishing party-run primaries for “all elections in Louisiana,” opening up the possibility of local government and judicial races being affected.

“There’s talk of possibly closing the primaries,” Henry said Monday. “That’s a priority that the governor has.”

Landry’s nebulous proposal is already facing pushback. Other high-profile Republican officials — including U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy and Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser — oppose party-run primaries. National groups have already started spending money to fight the proposal. One organization even commissioned a statewide poll in December showing partisan primaries are unpopular with Louisiana voters.

“It’s kind of a crazy policy to bring up,” Cassidy said in an interview Monday. “I’m thinking you have to be kidding me with this.”

‘Jungle Primary’ Verses Party-Run Primary

Louisiana’s current “jungle primary” has its roots in the 1970s, when then-Gov. Edwin Edwards was reportedly tired of having to run in a primary and general election every campaign cycle. The jungle system allowed Edwards to forgo the general election, as long as he won a nonpartisan primary against all the candidates in the race with more than 50 percent of the vote.

With a jungle primary, every candidate runs against each other regardless of party affiliation. If no one gets over 50 percent of the vote, the two candidates with the largest percentage of support advance to a general election for a runoff.

Landry would like to move to a system where the state political parties take over and run the primary elections. This often involves GOP-only and Democrat-only contests being held separately. The winners of those races face each other in a general contest, which could also feature other independent and minor party candidates.

Unlike with the jungle primary, Democratic and Republican party leaders could choose to limit voter participation to people registered with their respective parties in a closed primary.

Critics of a closed primary, including Cassidy, said it’s likely to disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of people in Louisiana. More than 27 percent of the state’s registered voters — roughly 822,000 people — are not Republicans or Democrats. They can vote in Louisiana’s jungle primaries now but could be locked out of Democrat-only and Republican-only contests going forward.

“It would be the largest act of voter disenfranchisement in the state in perhaps a century,” said Jeremy Gruber, vice president of Open Primaries, a national group that advocates for nonpartisan primary elections.

Generation X and millennials across the country are also more likely to still identify as independent voters than older generations, according to Gallup polling, meaning that policy changes that restrict independent voters would be more likely to affect those who are middle-aged and younger.

Moving to party-run primaries also would put Louisiana in the minority nationwide. Only 18 states have the fully or partially closed primaries that Landry appears to favor, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

“Why would we want to disenfranchise a third of the electorate?” Cassidy said.

We’ve Been Here Before

Louisiana has experimented with party-run primary elections in the past.

Lawmakers voted in 2006 to start using party primary elections at the urging of state Rep. Charles Lancaster, a Metairie Republican who had devoted most of his life to building up the Louisiana GOP.

Legislators were convinced to go the partisan route in large part because members of Louisiana’s congressional delegation complained their late runoff elections, which are typically held in December, put them at a disadvantage when it came to getting committee assignments and office space on Capitol Hill.

As freshmen congressmen, they had less time to lobby for positions than their colleagues in other states,who were elected in November.

For two election cycles, in 2008 and 2010, Louisiana had party-run primaries — but only for federal races. The jungle primary system was still used in state and local elections, which proved disorienting for some voters.

Louisiana Democrats also decided to allow unaffiliated voters to participate in their primary elections, while the GOP would only allow registered Republicans to vote in their races.

“This creates tremendous confusion,” said then-Secretary of State Jay Dardenne, in charge of running elections, at a 2010 legislative hearing on the primary system.

“The public doesn’t understand why they can’t vote in one but they can vote in another,” Dardenne said at the time.

Lawmakers also heard frustration from their constituents and decided to revert back to a jungle primary for all elections starting in 2011. They overwhelmingly voted to scrap partisan primaries in the 2010 legislative session.

Former state Rep. Hunter Greene, R-Baton Rouge, led the effort to undo the party-run primary. At the time, Greene, now a state appellate court judge, said returning to the jungle primary was expected to save Louisiana $6.5 million over two years.

This was, in part, because the short-lived party-run primaries required an extra election each cycle. The state held an initial partisan primary and then, if no one got 50 percent of the vote, a party runoff. Finally, the general election decided the office winner. By going back to the jungle system, the state only had two elections for each office per cycle.

Critics have said moving back to a party-run system would likely cost the state millions of dollars per year. Cassidy estimated it would be $9 million more annually. Former Sen. Rick Ward, R-Port Allen, is also opposed to party-run primaries, said it would cost approximately $8 million annually.

“I could think of so many other things that $8 million could go to,” said Ward, who is working with the national group Republic Renewal that opposes party-run elections.

Ward’s organization has also set out to prove partisan primaries aren’t popular with voters. It hired Republican pollster John Couvillon to conduct a survey of voters’ attitudes toward party-run primaries. It found 65 percent of people surveyed favored or strongly favored keeping the jungle primary in place.

But one important person, the current governor, has been interested in returning to party-run primaries for several years.

What Does the Governor Want?

Landry’s political career was launched in 2010 during that short window when Louisiana held party primaries for Congress. In 2010, he leveraged support from the state Republican Party to defeat former Louisiana House Speaker Hunt Downer, a Democrat-turned-Republican, in the GOP-only primary for Congress. He then went on to defeat a minor Democratic candidate and become a U.S. representative.

But Landry’s time in Washington was short-lived. Two years later, when the party-run primary was replaced by the jungle format again, he ended up losing his House seat. The more moderate Republican Congressman Charles Boustany beat Landry when Louisiana lost one of its congressional seats to redistricting.

Conventional wisdom is that party-run primaries benefit the more ideologically pure candidates such as Landry, who is considered a far-right Republican. It’s why many more moderate elected officials, such as Nungesser, are opposed to closing primaries in the first place.

“You get extreme candidates on both sides” in party-run elections, Nungesser said. “In open primaries, you have to talk to all of Louisiana.”

Political scientists haven’t necessarily found a strong link between open primary elections and success for centrist candidates. Research in this area has, for the most part, been inconclusive.

LSU political scientist Mike Henderson said moving to a party-run system might provide more of an incentive for independent voters to join the Republican Party, which is dominant in Louisiana. But just having an increase in registered Republicans won’t necessarily lead to more conservative elected leaders.

“Moving to a closed primary system is not necessarily going to strengthen a wing of the party,” Henderson said.

Support for party-run primaries will also come from other corners besides Landry and his allies. Prominent Democrats in Louisiana are also inclined to support a closed primary system.

“It really doesn’t matter to me,” U.S. Rep. Troy Carter, D-New Orleans, said of closed primaries. “Many states do it that way.”

“I’m not opposed to it,” said Public Service Commissioner Davante Lewis of Baton Rouge, considered one the Democratic Party’s more progressive members.

Lewis said he believes Democrats statewide could benefit from partisan primaries.

If a party-run primary system had been in place this fall, Lewis said Landry would have had to face Democrat Shawn Wilson in a gubernatorial general election. Instead, under the jungle system, Landry never had to go head-to-head with a Democrat because he won the primary election outright.

Tight Timeline for Changes

The brevity of this month’s special session could be the biggest hurdle Landry has to putting a new primary system in place immediately.

Lawmakers will only meet for eight days and tend to be wary about making major changes to any election laws without a thorough vetting. Landry also didn’t tell many legislators in advance he would be proposing a party-run primary system.

“We have a long way to go on that subject matter and a very short period of time,” Henry said. “I think it really comes down to how quickly members can get educated on it and what effect that has on their districts and statewide.”

“The people who are really pushing it have a lot of work to do,” Henry said.

This article was first published by the Louisiana Illuminator. Read the original article.
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