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When Primary Elections Become Too Primary

To the Louisiana House’s Governmental Affairs Committee: when in doubt, check with your friendly neighborhood political scientist. Just don’t all thank me at once for this free information and advice on a technical election matter.

Last week, this committee convened to come up with some ideas concerning the presidential preference primary’s future in this state. Their main worry came from the fact that the exercise cost the state $2.8 million, or about $1 for every eligible voter, $10 per actual voter, for a contest that really made no difference in the presidential nomination sweepstakes.

Both panel members and those testifying in front of it, from all political stripes, lamented this situation and wondered what to do it about. Well, let me use my Ph.D. in political science and 19 years of teaching in the field at the university level to try to help.

To begin, a correction: it was reported that Louisiana’s efforts to have a primary or caucus before the first caucus state, Iowa, ran afoul of an Iowan state law. This was not the case – the only reason why Iowa gets to have the first caucus and New Hampshire the first primary for the Democrat side is it is written into the party’s rules. A companion rule does not exist for the GOP but traditionally party leaders from all states have deferred to this scheduling, in part due to the Democrats’ insistence on it and the confusion that would occur if different parties had primaries on separate days.

This panel may wish to review with interest the national Democrat Party’s plans here, which in a couple of weeks will convene a commission to study the issue. Voices of reform have articulated that the increased front-loading, or states bunching their contests earlier together in the nomination season, distorts the process. Worse, a free-for-all leapfrogging of states trying to battle for earlier and earlier positions logically could lead to the first contest occurring the weekend after a presidential election.

Louisiana has gone down that road before, where Republicans tried to have caucuses prior to Iowa’s in 1996 and 2000. In the first case, most candidates boycotted the event and in the second it never came off. Better would be a plan pushed by the National Association of Secretaries of State to create a rotating schedule of regional primaries.

Of course, Louisiana simply could save money by opting out entirely of a primary and holding much less expensive caucuses. A half-dozen states did so in 2004, and Secretary of State Fox McKeithen has suggested it here.

Getting the Democrats to remove the rules making Iowa and New Hampshire sacrosanct as first should represent a starting point in this endeavor. On the Democrat side, in 2000 Delaware and in 2004 Michigan challenged the Democrat National Committee on the issue, but it forced both to back down. More backbone by other states, with quiet support by party frontrunners for the 2008 nomination could make this reality.

But unless the Democrats by this time next year have endorsed such a move, Louisiana will have to jockey with other states for relevancy, so now may the time for Democrat House members and Democrats statewide to put pressure on the party to make this move. If it doesn’t happen, a money-saving caucus might also make worry over a date less stressful.

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