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Blanket primary return to bring reduced accountability

Unfortunately, the maturation of Louisiana’s political system and culture looks certain to suffer a setback with the return to the blanket primary system for federal elections, with an increased possibility of public policy less influenced by the people’s wishes.

Already used in all other elections in the state, the blanket primary as practiced here skips the party primary entirely by having all candidates run together regardless of affiliation in what technically constitutes a general election, and then have a general election in runoff if no candidate receives an absolute majority. The closed primary system here, instituted in 2008 and to be discontinued after 2010, has each party choose a nominee by a popular vote of its registrants and whoever else the party invites, a runoff if needed if not candidate receives an absolute majority, and the winner advancing to the general election to face other party nominees and no-party candidates where a plurality determines the victor.

The most common complaint about the blanket primary system when used for federal elections was that it could delay Louisiana input into decisions such as choices for chamber leadership and committee seniority.
This was because as legally the first election takes on aspects of a general election, that election can occur no earlier than the federal election date set by national law, the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. If a runoff occurred, that would be about a month later after other states’ first-time winners would be known and they, unlike their unselected new Louisiana compatriots, could begin to influence leadership contests and jockey earlier for committee slots.

But the system also has a more insidious effect on the political system through its removal of partisanship as a method of accountability. The process completely devalues the meaning of a party label and all the useful cues and information it gives to voters. If there is no nomination process, it is easier for candidates to obscure their issue preferences. If you have to win a nomination process from an electorate that, as research on party primary voters demonstrates, cares more about ideology and is better informed, it becomes more difficult to skirt issues and to try to be all things to all voters.

Instead, with this vacuum created, candidate image increases in importance. This means that how a candidate presents himself, his personality, even his appearance, become more prominent factors in voting decisions among more people – issueless features that tell us nothing about policy preferences of the candidate. Unfortunately, this allows candidates to concentrate better on disseminating this kind of information that appeals to everybody instead of substance which can divide voters but also is far more meaningful relative to the making of public policy. In the end, this means the electoral connection between representative and constituent becomes less constrained on the basis of issues – we get elected officials more likely to follow their own agendas that may not comport with the majority of their constituents.

This will create more muddled, “moderate” politics. Note that these are different conditions than perhaps two decades ago when the blanket primary often produced more ideologically extreme candidates. This occurred then because electoral dynamics heavily favored Democrats. In that situation, a larger proportion of minority party (then Republican) voters was more ideological and put conservative candidates through to runoffs (identifiers tend to stick with candidates that affiliate with the same party). The proportion of majority party voters that was ideological favored those more liberal candidates, discouraging most moderates who called themselves Democrats who supported other candidates. That tended to produce at least one and maybe two more ideological candidates in a runoff, depending upon how many moderate Democrats would stick with the liberal Democrat or defect to a moderate Democrat.

However, now with the Republicans not only on par with Democrats but also essentially the majority party of the two in the state, moderates who identify as Republicans have grown, increasing the chances of Republican moderate candidates where in the past such candidates were considered just echoes of Democrat moderates and Democrat moderate voters would eschew them for the “real” thing. This means on both ends of the spectrum in a blanket primary a greater chance exists of edging out more ideological candidates in the first election, which then produces more ideological mishmash that makes it more difficult for voters to understand candidate differences on the basis of issues in the second.

Yet why would state elected officials, who have gotten to where they are through this system with a deliberate deemphasizing of issue preferences and enhanced ability to follow their own agendas potentially contrary to the people’s as long as they come off as good old boys and gals, care about rules for running for federal office? Because of progressive ambition – they may want to run for these themselves one day (especially with legislative term limits in effect) and since they succeeded with the one system they know, they prefer to replicate it. Unfortunately, the state’s current budget crunch with the fact that a blanket system can be constructed to have only one or two contests (a closed system can be also constructed to produce no more than two, but one would be highly unlikely) provided for public consumption a money-saving rationale for reverting back that, frankly for many legislators and statewide elected officials, was a lesser reason for their support than that they believe their chances are enhanced for attaining future federal office with a blanket primary system.

Thus, after this fall Louisiana’s citizens will find themselves less able to hold their U.S. representatives and senators accountable on the basis of issues and reduced likelihood that their activities in Congress will be congruent with the majority’s wishes. Although he has indicated he will sign the bill to bring this less-desirable situation about, it would be nice if Gov. Bobby Jindal would reconsider and veto away this retreat from responsible governing.

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