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Party Animals: Louisiana's Closed Federal Primary System 

This will be Louisiana's last round of closed party primaries in federal elections. The coming sendoff promises a wild transition back to our WIDE-OPEN roots.

Political folks used to like to refer to Louisiana's open primary elections for federal offices as "jungle primaries" because candidates of all stripes were packed together on a single ballot and forced to fight it out. Republicans against Libertarians, Democrats against Green Party members, socialists against no-party hopefuls. You name it, our ballots have probably played host to it at one point or another.

  Then came The Big Change.

  State lawmakers shuttered Louisiana's open primary system for federal offices in time for the 2006 elections. It represented a sea change in local and state politics.

  In response to the new rules, Republican mullahs ruled that only registered Republicans could vote in that party's federal primaries. Democrats opened theirs up to non-Democrats — as long as participants did not belong to a party that was holding its own primary at the same time. For voters accustomed to the old "open" primary system, it was a tad confusing. Different rules for local and federal elections seemed to underscore Louisiana's cultural and political break from the rest of the country.

  Now, just four years later, the Legislature has reversed course — effective right after this year's round of elections. It seems state lawmakers prefer the old way of making politics to the new one.

  So, beginning next year, Louisiana's federal elections will be fought in open primaries once again. In 2012, we'll see a cattle call for November non-partisan primaries, with the two top finishers going nose-to-nose in December runoffs (in cases where no one gets a majority in the November primaries).

  That change flies in the face of Louisiana's federal lawmakers, who argue that open primaries often send congressmen and senators to the Hill after all of the choice committee assignments have been doled out — and during a time when only makeshift closets are available for office space. It was all about the perks. But, as with redistricting, state lawmakers have the last say on the matter.

  And for them, it was all about the money.

  Rep. Hunter Greene, R-Baton Rouge, author of the enabling Act 570 of 2010, says the swap will save taxpayers $6.5 million every two years. He adds that it also will decrease voter confusion. "I think running on your merit, rather than putting a letter behind your name, is the best way to do it," Greene says.

  To be sure, the current system is more complicated than an open primary system, and voters still haven't mastered the learning curve. This year, for example, Louisiana will see party-specific primaries on Aug. 28, with party runoffs (if needed) on Oct. 2. Party nominees will then square off with each other and any independents and minor party nominees in a November general election. "We have a semi-closed situation," says Secretary of State Jay Dardenne.

There are several hitches to the current system. As mentioned above, current law allows state-recognized political parties to decide who can vote in their respective primaries. Republicans and Democrats, to no one's surprise, play by different rules. Only Republicans can vote in GOP primaries, while Dems and non-party voters can cast ballots in Democratic primaries. That autonomy has been upheld by the courts, no matter how much it confuses voters.

  "The public doesn't understand why they're told they can vote in one and not vote in the other," Dardenne says.

  Which leads to another hitch: The separate party primaries for federal offices sometimes fall on the same dates as "open" primaries for state and local offices. This year, for example, party runoffs for Congress and U.S. Senate will be on Oct. 2 — the same date as the open primaries for lieutenant governor and a host of local and regional offices across the state. On their way into voting booths that day, voters may have to be sorted into GOP and non-GOP herds, depending on whether there are runoffs for any of the Republican seats in Congress or for the U.S. Senate seat currently held by David Vitter.

  Thus, while Louisiana is joining 20 other states in reverting to jungle primaries for federal elections, there will be some interesting political theater between now and the Nov. 2 general election.

  For starters, the GOP nomination for the U.S. Senate was not expected to be much of a fight. Then along came former state Supreme Court Justice Chet Traylor of Monroe, who jumped in to challenge Sen. David Vitter at the last minute. Traylor is getting lots of buzz across the state. He's got solid conservative credentials and made a quick grab for portions of Vitter's Christian-conservative base. He's an Army veteran, a card-carrying member of the National Rifle Association and the author of the Supreme Court's 2000 opinion upholding the state's sodomy laws. "Simply put, commission of what the Legislature determines as an immoral act, even if consensual and private, is an injury against society itself," Traylor wrote.

  If that weren't enough, Traylor is telling reporters he's running because of Vitter's past sins, including connections to a D.C. prostitution ring and a more recent controversy involving a former aide who stabbed a woman and built up a substantial criminal history while on the senator's staff. As a Monroe resident and former assistant district attorney in Franklin Parish, Traylor could cut into Vitter's critical base in north Louisiana.

  On the Democratic side of the Senate race, all eyes and ears have been tuned to the campaign of U.S. Rep. Charlie Melancon of Napoleonville, who faces a different set of challenges. While Melancon drew only token opposition in the Aug. 28 Democratic primary, there's a wildcard on the November general election ballot in the form of state Rep. Ernest Wooton of Belle Chasse.

  Wooton, a former Plaquemines Parish sheriff who has a reputation in the Legislature for saying whatever might be on his mind, could cut into Melancon's geographic base in coastal parishes. In the absence of any other sideshow, like the will-she-or-won't-she campaign tease of Baton Rouge-born adult film star Stormy Daniels, Wooton could draw some attention. It all depends on how far he takes his bid. He says he's running to address the oil crisis in the Gulf of Mexico.

  Wooton's House district once encompassed portions of Lafourche Parish, which puts him squarely in competition with Melancon for votes there. Philosophically, however, his conservative stripes make him just as much a threat to Vitter.

  Meanwhile, in the 3rd Congressional District, which includes portions of Acadiana and is the seat Melancon will vacate, the closed primary system has already produced a winner of sorts. Houma attorney Ravi Sangisetty, a pro-life Democrat, was the only Dem to qualify. He thus goes right to the Nov. 2 general election.

  Sangisetty accepted the nomination in a press release. "I entered this race last September, and today I am one step closer to having the privilege of representing this district in Washington," he says. That honor would not have befallen the political rookie were it not for the closed primary system.

  Even though Sangisetty has a cool half-million bucks in his campaign kitty, the GOP primary will probably yield the early favorite for November's general election. Former House Speaker Hunt Downer of Houma and New Iberia attorney Jeff Landry lead the pack, with oil field manager Kristian Magar joining them in the GOP primary.

  Depending on how the closed primary races go in August, a runoff in any of the races could end up on the same October ballot as the lieutenant governor's election and many other open primaries. In theory, a slew of high-profile races could draw voters to the polls — only to have them find out some elections are open while others are closed.

  And just to make it really confusing, it will all change — again — in just a few months.

Jeremy Alford can be reached at jeremy@jeremyalford.com.

click to enlarge The closed primary system worked well for Ravi Sangisetty of Houma, who was the only democrat to qualify for the 3rd Congressional District seat being vacated by Charlie Melancon. Sangisetty goes straight to the Nov. 2 general election.
  • The closed primary system worked well for Ravi Sangisetty of Houma, who was the only democrat to qualify for the 3rd Congressional District seat being vacated by Charlie Melancon. Sangisetty goes straight to the Nov. 2 general election.
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