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Govt accountability suffers in politician-centered LA

Usually, state central committee meetings of political parties feature internecine quibbles. But the recent meeting of Louisiana Republicans actually brought some fascinating policy quarrels to the surface.

One came with the body’s declaration that for federal elections to Congress the state should repeal its intent to return to the blanket primary system for the 2012 cycle and retain a form of the closed primary. The motion correctly noted that to the party, and to any political party for that matter with its sympathizers, the system encourages those with Republican sympathies to identify as such. A quick trip through the political science literature tells you those who make the psychological commitment to identifying with a political party in a tangible way such as by registering as a member for voting purposes are much likelier voters for the party’s candidates. The blanket primary system, which does not force people to identify with a particular party to vote for its candidates in primary elections, discourages the making of this psychological commitment.

This produces a more accountable set of politicians, because party becomes a more meaningful cue for voters who then expect those elected under those labels to follow policy preferences articulated by the party. It discourages personalistic kinds of politics, which emphasizes focusing on the politicians’ ability to relate to enough voters rather than on issues, obscuring the latter – which is what the blanket primary system accentuates. Particularly for the GOP at this time the switch would be helpful, since so many no-party and Democrat-registered folks regularly vote Republican.

Unfortunately for them, many of their elected officials disregard party fortunes for their own. Many state legislators grappling with term limits look to move up to national office, and figure if they got into state office through the blanket primary system, their chances are maximized if the same system applies for higher office. Also, they prefer a system which emphasizes personalistic politics precisely because it is easier to hide votes and actions dealing with policy from the electorate. This is why so many voted to scrap the closed primary system after so short a period.

These primary motives nakedly were revealed because what the party suggested in its motion already had been forwarded in the Legislature this year by Republican state Rep. Cameron Henry. Critics tried to hide these motives by saying it was all about cost, as the current system caused as many as three elections to occur while the blanket primary produced a maximum of just two. But Henry’s bill would have kept closed primaries with two elections by eliminating the runoff election for the nomination – as is the case in most states. It would have saved the same amount of money, but the bill was shelved quickly, thus proving ambition more than a willingness to be accountable to the citizenry really drove supporters’ considerations (that and some outright dishonesty on the floor).

Also wanting was former state Rep. Peppi Bruneau’s defense of the blanket primary system in saying that it was what helped the party grow in the number of officials elected to the Legislature. Bruneau – who when the blanket system first started began his legislative career as an independent who are the people who most benefit from that system – does not know his comparative electoral history. While Republicans began to get elected slowly but surely, then with a more rapid increase within the last decade, their rates of increase in Louisiana actually were slower than in other southern states, precisely because the electoral system did not punish candidates who claimed they were conservative who ran as Democrats by putting them into primaries with more liberal electorates. Rather than encourage Republican officeholders, it retarded their numbers.

The motion was long overdue and one wonders where it was months ago when the Henry’s failed bill and the dissembling state Rep. Hunter Greene’s bill that succeeded lay pre-filed for the session. Perhaps more vocal complaints (only late in the process did the party’s chairman, current Lt. Gov. candidate Roger Villere express disapproval) then might have derailed the effort or channeled it into Henry’s bill. It’s now too little, too late, as for reasons above it will not be revisited in the Legislature, but this action serves as a useful reminder how politician-centered politics dies hard in Louisiana – to the detriment of government accountability.

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