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New Rules 

One of the reasons politicians devote so much energy to rulemaking is this simple fact: If you change the process, you change the outcome. State lawmakers' recent decision to revert to Louisiana's nonpartisan primaries for federal elections (starting next year) is an excellent case in point.

  Prior to 1975, all our elections — state, federal and local — used separate party primaries. Because of old habits, the vast majority of registered voters in Louisiana were Democrats, and candidates from that party won just about every election. Back then, the GOP was so small that, as the joke went, it could hold its convention in a phone booth.

  Still, Republicans typically held primaries and nominated sacrificial lambs for general election ballots. Compared to the rough-and-tumble Democratic elections, the GOP contests were relatively staid — and cheap — because the party was so small. Thus, in major races, the ultimate winner (always a Democrat) had to trudge through three grueling contests to claim the office.

  That's what happened in 1971-72 to newly elected Gov. Edwin Edwards. He slugged his way through a large field in the Democratic primary, then endured a tough (and expensive) Democratic runoff against then-state Sen. J. Bennett Johnston, and then had to gin up his campaign all over again to face Republican Dave Treen, who coasted to the GOP nomination without breaking a sweat.

  EWE wanted to make sure that didn't happen again, so he convinced lawmakers to change the rules. Starting with the 1975 state and local elections (and in 1978 for federal contests), all candidates ran in an "open" primary, regardless of their party affiliation. Equally important, voters, regardless of their party registration, could vote for any candidate on the ballot. EWE believed the new system would crush the GOP, but it actually had the opposite effect. The new rules did, however, achieve EWE's goal of reducing the number of elections from three to two — and sometimes one, if a candidate could capture a majority in the primary (as Edwards did in his 1975 re-election bid).

  There was another effect: nonpartisan primaries with crowded fields tend to reward candidates on the extremes. That happened, for example, in the 1991 race for governor, which produced "the runoff from hell" between EWE and David Duke. No system is perfect.

  Louisiana still uses nonpartisan primaries for state and local elections, but in 2008 we switched back to party primaries for federal contests. That led to Anh "Joseph" Cao facing William Jefferson and two minor candidates for Congress in a hurricane-delayed general election in December 2008. Had Louisiana had open primaries that year, the primary would not have been delayed; it would have been in October, with a two-candidate runoff on Nov. 4, 2008 — the same day Barack Obama won the presidency.

  The high black voter turnout in New Orleans that day would have favored Jefferson, who led a crowded field in the Democratic primary (and, no doubt, would have led the pack in a nonpartisan primary). In a November general election, Jefferson would have beaten Cao easily — or faced another Democrat. Either way, Cao would not have won that election.

  Which explains why Louisiana's congressional delegation — and the state GOP — opposed the Legislature's decision earlier this year to switch back to nonpartisan primaries. Incumbents never want to change a system that put them into office.

  What carried the day for lawmakers was essentially the same argument that moved EWE to push for the change almost 40 years ago: It will save money. It's also less confusing for voters, who have grown accustomed to nonpartisan primaries.

  Going forward, the new rules will change the outcomes — but not until after this round of elections.


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