Starting in 2008, Louisiana conducted elections under two different systems: a closed party primary for federal races and an open primary for all other elections.
Under the rules of the closed primary for federal (US Representative and US Senator), each of the state’s political parties had the option of allowing registered independents and those voters who don’t have a party affiliation (in the eyes of the Secretary of State, there is a distinction) to participate in their primary.
The Louisiana GOP’s State Committee resoundingly voted to keep their primary exclusively for registered Republicans, while the Democrats, sensing a public relations coup, happily welcomed independents and unaffiliated voters to participate in theirs. More on that Republican committee vote later in this column.
Now before I delve into the complications, absurdities and the cost to the taxpayers of the closed primary system, allow me to discuss politics.
John McCain, the Republican Party’s presidential nominee, carried the Pelican State with 59% of the vote yet less than one-third of the Louisiana electorate are registered Republicans. Obviously independents, unaffiliated voters and registered Democrats crossed over to create this in-state landslide.
The GOP bosses and committee members ignore this reality with their insistence of “party purity” in the closed primary. While the Louisiana Republican State Central Committee’s 114-5 vote endorsing the closed primary was seemingly overwhelming, two things should be mentioned. First the RSCC consists of over 200 members; hence barely a majority were at the meeting. And some of those “votes” were proxies (members who handed their votes to someone else) and not the votes of members actually present.
Furthermore, over 70% of the RSCC was elected without opposition. Though its members serve on the governing board of the Louisiana Republican Party, one should not automatically assume that this mostly unelected body actually speaks for Louisiana’s registered Republicans.
In addition to insulting independents and unaffiliated voters, a critical cog in the Louisiana Republican Party’s electoral coalition, by shutting them out of the GOP primary and thus allowing them to participate in the Democratic primary, they’re creating a “moderating” effect by supporting more conservative Democratic candidates.
In other words, the independents and unaffiliated voters are saving the Democrats from themselves while the Louisiana GOP hides behind their ideological ramparts.
This scenario played out in the special election to replace Congressman Richard Baker in the Baton Rouge’s 6th congressional district, where a centrist Democrat, Don Cazayoux won his party’s nomination while ultra-conservative Woody Jenkins won the GOP nod. To nobody’s surprise, the Democrat won the general election in a fairly conservative congressional district.
But the closed primary’s can giveth and taketh. Another quirk with the system is that a candidate needs to only garner a plurality (the most votes as opposed to a majority) to win an election. Since the closed primary’s return, Louisiana has elected four congressmen without a majority, including Cazayoux and the Republican who defeated him later on in 2008.
The closed primary allows for political manipulation and chicanery to determine the outcome of a congressional election because a candidate does not need to win a majority.
Candidates have the option of skipping what could be a two-election primary, since a candidate DOES need to win a majority of the vote to receive his or her party’s nomination. A candidate can avoid the hassle and expense of winning a primary fight by simply qualifying for the general election as an independent or be nominated by one of the minor parties that have ballot access, such as the Greens or Libertarians. These candidates are in a position to play spoiler to a major party nominee (see ex-Congressman Cazayoux).
And there’s the potential for lawsuits as precinct commissioners could (and I’m sure have) accidentally allow people who shouldn’t vote in a particular primary or block someone from participating who is allowed to vote in a particular primary.
While permitting only Republicans to vote in the Republican primary and allowing Democrats, independents and unaffiliated voters to vote in the Democratic Primary might seem like a simple concept, the possibility (or rather probability) for confusion is ripe, especially since elected local offices under the open primary are voted on the same day!
You could very well have a case where someone is elected party nominee by more votes than there were eligible votes cast. While this is hardly unprecedented in Louisiana, the practical complexities of this system invite controversy.
Finally there is the best argument for scrapping the closed primary: its $6,000,000+ price tag.
Louisiana is in the midst of a nine-figure budget crisis. By scrapping the closed primary (which could require up to three elections) and going with the open primary (no more than two elections), the state could save a considerable amount of money that could go towards plugging the budget hole and off-setting cuts to hospitals and higher education.
Though the leadership of the Louisiana Republican Party boasts about being conservative, there is nothing more conservative a Republican can do than to save money from being needlessly spent.
The only winners with the closed primary are political consultants, since they stand to make money off of three elections instead of two in an open primary.
The closed federal primary is one luxury that Louisiana cannot afford.