Inside Report: Open primary attracts lots of critics

As the 2014 election season kicks off, the unique way Louisiana conducts its elections is under fire.

The state’s open primary system — called “jungle primaries” by national opinion makers — has been a fixture for decades. It’s a legacy of former Gov. Edwin W. Edwards from back in the days when the Democratic Party ruled the state and Republicans could elect few of their numbers.

In the open primary system, voters, regardless of their party registration, can cast ballots for anyone on the list of candidates, regardless of their party affiliation. The top two vote-getters, regardless of party, advance to a runoff election. (Unless a candidate wins an outright majority of the votes cast.)

The state Republican Party, whose members hold every statewide position except one of the U.S. senators, served notice that it intends to make a new push for a return to the closed party primary election system that most states use. In that system, Republicans and Democrats — in separate elections — would choose who would become the party’s standard bearers in general elections.

In a resolution passed last weekend, the Louisiana GOP’s ruling body said the party only provides financial support for candidates who are either the only Republican in a race or have been endorsed by the party.

“This places many worthy Louisiana Republican candidates at a financial disadvantage against Democratic opponents,” the resolution continued.

The party hierarchy said the “government of the people, and by the people requires that the people have first voice in choosing their representatives” and so the state should return to the closed primary system to allow that to happen.

They went on to encourage the Legislature to change state law to revert to the closed primary.

Edwards got the state to abandon the old “closed primary” system in the 1970s.

In 1971, Edwards had to win two grueling elections in the Democratic primary and runoff. Then Edwards had to run a third time because Republicans had nominated Dave Treen.

That’s when Edwards said enough was enough and called for the open primary where candidates would have to run, at most, twice. The Legislature went along.

Treen won election in a 1979 runoff, in which he was endorsed by four Democratic candidates who fell short of votes in the primary. But he lost again to Edwards in 1983 under the open system.

The open primary has been with Louisiana since the early 1970s and has been popular with voters. Both Republicans and Democrats have sought its repeal at one time or another.

The state briefly moved to the closed party primary system in time for 2008 congressional elections. The change only impacted federal elections. State and local elections remained under the open primary system.

Republican voters could vote only for Republican candidates. Democratic voters could vote only for Democrats. Libertarians could vote only for Libertarians. Unaffiliated voters could participate in either Democratic or Libertarian party primaries. But Republicans opted to exclude unaffiliated voters and limited its primary balloting to registered Republicans. The idea was to encourage voters to register with the party if they wanted to vote for a Republican candidate to boost GOP ranks in the state.

The 2010 Legislature overwhelmingly approved scrapping the party primary system, which lawmakers said created voter confusion because other Louisiana elections are open primaries.

Elections officials also pointed to the costs of potentially having three — instead of two elections — if no one got the party nomination outright.

“It was an experiment that nobody really liked,” said Mandeville state Rep. Tim Burns, the Republican chairman of the House elections oversight committee. “It was an experiment that didn’t last too long because of confusion.”

The open primary is a “simpler, clearer system,” he said. “When you try to encourage voter participation, if you make the rules too confusing, it discourages.”

In addition, “With a closed primary, you run the risk of alienating independent voters who will feel disenfranchised,” Burns said.

Proposals to move all of Louisiana’s elections back to the closed primary haven’t gone too far yet. But it looks like Republicans are primed to tackle the issue with 2015 statewide elections on the horizon.

Marsha Shuler covers elections policy for The Advocate Capitol news bureau. Her email address is mshuler@theadvocate.com.