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Blanket primary restoration makes backwards step

Bills are picking up steam that would turn back the clock to prevent further erosion of the emphasis on personality rather than policy in the state’s political culture.

More than any other state, Louisiana’s political culture, much like with undemocratic political systems or in immature democracies worldwide, emphasizes the place of the politician rather than those of institutions or ideas. This means political behavior such as voting and other forms of participation is shaped more by the persons in politics, for the most part elected officials, than by aggregators such as political parties or interest groups, or by ideology.

Why this is considered a more immature kind of politics by students of political culture and particularly by democratic theorists is institutions and ideas are superior instruments to aggregate shared preferences in the mass public. By contrast, more personalistic systems place primacy on individual relationships to which most of the mass public do not enjoy sufficient access and also because policymakers deemphasize issue preferences that make it easier for them to evade accountability for their policies. Regardless, it’s no surprise that Louisiana political elites generally prefer that evolution away from this not occur because it’s the system through which they gained power.

Electoral laws can affect this environment, and this regular session has some relevant bills. HB 292 by state Rep. Hunter Greene from a closed primary would return the state to a blanket primary for federal elections, as they were previous to 2008 and remain so for state and local elections. Thus, party nominations presently decided through elections where only party registrants, and if the party permits it also voters unaffiliated with any recognized party, may choose nominees for the general election would become contests without a nominative aspect at all.

This promotes personalistic politics because the attitude of partisanship, even if it provides this benefit only psychologically, unites those who share the same label. Where idea-based parties can control more aspects of the political process, such as conveying an electoral benefit to candidates through a nomination because the label supplies useful policy information to voters, the less personalistic the system becomes.

The blanket primary system used for all but federal elections in Louisiana most discourages this transformation. Because any voter can vote for any candidate of any label in any such election, there is no reward or penalty for a voter to consider and choose a label, either to self-identify or by which to judge a candidate. A closed primary forces voters to think about their issue preferences and register themselves accordingly because they gain the reward of being able to choose that party’s nominees. This imperative encourages voters to think about issues.

Further, they avoid the penalty of non-members of the party being able to influence decisions in ways they may not like. If a party can’t protect its most important decision, whom to represent it using its label to the voters, partisanship as an organizing principle for political behavior on the basis of interconnected ideas loses much power. And the beneficiaries of this are those who would base politics on personalism.

Greene’s bill faced no opposition in the House and Governmental Affairs Committee, and one point in its favor was the current closed system could cause as many as three elections to be held rather than two under the blanket system, saving the state as much as an estimated almost $6.6 million every two years. But state Rep. Cameron Henry’s HB 1157 would do the same without getting rid of the closed system, because by it nominations could be won by a plurality vote just as are general elections for federal office, not requiring a runoff primary. But because the committee loved Greene’s bill, Henry deferred his.

Where Greene could make a case about the superiority of his bill was it could be less confusing. This is because some people complained in 2008 they couldn’t understand why they couldn’t vote for anybody in the federal primary elections when they could in all others, and in particular that no-party registrants (“independents”) could vote only in the Democrat primary.

Of course, the “confusion” could be reduced if local and state elections were changed to closed primaries rather than the reverse, and, as Henry pointed out, because the change to closed primaries for federal elections (which had been the case up until 1976) was so recent, confusion should die out over time as voters educated themselves. Still, some of it might remain because state parties are allowed to decide for themselves the question of independent participation, and currently the parties split: Democrats permit it, Republicans don’t.

To address this, state Sen. Robert Adley proposed SB 690 that would strip the parties of this ability; last year, he had offered a bill like Greene’s. Adley has long railed, with an obvious distaste for logical thinking, that not permitting independents to vote for whom they pleased in primaries was “disenfranchisement,” apparently oblivious to the fact that all they had to do to guarantee their participation in any party’s closed primary was to change their registration to that party’s.

The only problem with this year’s version is that it is unconstitutional. Adley seems unaware of Tashjian v. Republican Party of Connecticut where in 1986 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a state could not compel a party to accept or not accept independents as participants. Instead, that decision has to be left in the hands of the parties themselves, which Adley’s bill would deny, or else parties’ rights of association would be violated.

Greene’s bill (which today gets aired in the House) avoids this problem because it removes primaries from being used as vehicles of party nominations but at the cost of having to schedule the primaries on the first Tuesday of the first Monday of November and any runoff after, which the Court ruled Louisiana had to do in 1997’s Foster v. Love. This was one of the rationales for the move to closed primaries for federal elections, because Louisiana’s new representatives and senators were disadvantaged for seniority in committee assignments and perquisites. Notably, Henry’s bill would avoid this problem.

Regardless, these changes, or any reluctance to make all elections subject to closed primaries, signify resistance to changing the state’s political culture. So many complain that Louisiana politics seems so insider in nature, so controlled by “good old boys” (and girls now, too) that it creates dysfunctional government where the peoples’ interests receive short shrift compared to those of politicians and special interests. This reflects restlessness with the personalism in the system, and that personalism is strengthened by bills like Greene’s and Adley’s.