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Problem would return with primary system reversion

Hold onto your hernia belts, is Louisiana headed back to a blanket primary system for federal elections?

HB 292 by Rep. Hunter Greene unanimously sailed out of the House and Governmental Affairs Committee yesterday. It would scrap the modified closed primary system employed to elect Members of Congress, where only those registered as, or if not registered as then if allowed to by a party, a partisan for voting purposes to vote for that party’s nominees for office, and replace it by allowing any elector regardless of party affiliation or lack of it to vote in a primary election where all candidates run together. This was they way it had been done since the mid-1970s.

Greene and his supporters sold it on the bases that it would cause less confusion (because different major parties chose differently on whether to allow no party individuals to participate in their primaries and also because it differed from the blanket primary still being used at the state and local level) and save money (because a closed primary system with an absolute majority requirement for a nomination requires as many as three elections while the blanket system requires at most two). But the drawback would be the late seniority classification of Members of Congress from the state at their initial election if occurring at a regular date.

This is because of a 1997 U.S. Supreme Court decision that holding a blanket primary election where a winner could then be determined prior to the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November of an even-numbered year for a full term to the next Congress ran contrary to federal law. Since then, until its abolishment before 2008, Louisiana had to hold the primary on that first Tuesday after the first Monday in November and, because of state law mandating a runoff if no candidate received an absolute majority in the first election, what was termed the general election would have to be held after, by state law four weeks later in December.

Historically, this brought complaints that it put Louisiana at a disadvantage. With its newcomers elected to Congress a month after those from all other states, perquisites such as more desirable offices and intangible benefits such as seniority for purposes of committee placements and leadership they missed out on. In its present form, HB 292 would bring the same problem.

A potential solution would be to make it like Washington’s “top two” blanket system. Under it, as long as at least two candidates receive at least one percent of the total vote, the top two candidates in terms of votes received advance to face each other in a general election. A general election also would be held because write-in votes would be permitted. Thus, it can be scheduled on that first Tuesday after the first Monday in November with certainty.

It will be interesting to see how the bill fares in the House. Conservative Republicans and black Democrats are the biggest beneficiaries of the new system because the closed primary system allows their supporters typically to be the largest bloc in a closed primary (especially if the party chooses not to let no-party registrants, as does the GOP at present, to participate – this option being an imposition of a 1986 Supreme Court ruling). Together, they comprise a majority in the chamber so it may be wise for Greene to try to convert his bill to a top two version to win some extra votes by those put off with the December election problem.


Steve Rankin said...

As to Louisiana using a system like Washington state's "top two" for its congressional elections: This would mean that a candidate who got 50%-plus in the first round would still be required to enter a runoff, where he could be defeated. I doubt that Louisiana voters would go for that.

But the main problem with the "top two" is a series of federal court rulings concerning congressional elections. These rulings say that any candidate for Congress who meets a prior vote test of five percent is entitled to be listed on the ballot on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. If the state wants to have a runoff, it can then be at a later date, as Louisiana was doing prior to 2008.

Washington state's "top two" is facing further litigation, including a trial in U. S. district court in October 2010 (Washington State Republican Party v. Washington State and Washington State Grange). Washington first used the "top two" in 2008, and I'm convinced that, if it continues using this system for its congressional elections, it will ultimately have to hold the first round in November.

Click here for more on this topic (see especially "History" and "Louisiana System").

Free Citizen

Jeff Sadow said...

Interesting. I've kept up with this but am unwilling to make any predictions since I am now 0-2 on that account (Love v. Foster, WA Grange v. WA GOP).

So the 1% threshhold may not fly but a 5% might? And I would think that the ability to write in even if nobody advanced to the top two would give it the characteristic of a general election. I guess we'll see.

Steve Rankin said...

Washington always advances the top two vote-getters to the runoff, assuming that at least two candidates run.

In WA's old blanket primary (1936-2003, R.I.P.), 1% was the minimum that the top vote-getter from each party needed in order to advance to the general election (for ANY office).

The five percent vote test for access to the November ballot for Congress could be met in a preliminary election or by signatures on a petition, e. g.

So the WA "top two"-- as well as California's June 8 ballot initiative-- are almost certainly unconstitutional for congressional elections.

The October trial in US district court will be on the associational rights issue vis-a-vis the WA "top two." The next court to hear the ballot access and trademark issues will be the 9th circuit.

Steve Rankin said...

The June 8 California "top two" initiative does not allow for write-in votes.