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LA blanket primary won't go away anytime soon

Louisiana’s blanket primary election system won’t be going away anytime soon because, for now, elites dependent upon it want it.

Officially, it isn’t even a primary at all, with it technically being a nonpartisan general election with a runoff should no candidate receive a simple majority of votes. All candidates regardless of party affiliation (if any) participate. A trio of other states have similar systems, except they are of the “top two” variety where a primary prior to the general election sorts out which two appear in the general election, regardless whether one receives a simple majority in the primary.

Rumblings among state politicians on this issue caught the attention of my colleagues at the Baton Rouge Advocate (I am a contracted to write a weekly opinion column for it), who produced a story about whether the state should change. It has used the blanket primary since 1975, except for all political party and presidential preference primary or caucus elections since then and in 2008 and 2010 a closed primary system for Congress.

Unfortunately, a couple of my colleagues in academia quoted in the piece didn’t quite give accurate information in their explanations for the blanket primary’s genesis and support. One inaccurately called it favored by dominant parties; in fact, political parties universally have loathed this or top two systems, regardless of relative strengths, with the 21st century state-level changes challenged by both state major and minor parties all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In Louisiana’s case, state Democrats had nothing to do with the move made through the prodding of then-new Gov. Edwin Edwards. He won in 1971 first through a bruising Democrat primary, then eked out a narrow runoff win against future Sen. J. Bennett Johnston for the party nomination, and then finally defeated Republican future Gov. Dave Treen in the general election. Chafing that Treen sailed to the general election, Edwards muscled through the change in time for his next election. This is contrary to what another interviewee said, that Edwards wanted this mainly to discourage other Democrats; in fact, Edwards saw the future with a growing GOP and wanted to prevent its nominees from having an easy road to a matchup with him.

Understanding correctly this past enables accurate analysis of the present on this issue. Which is this: individual legislators who came into power because of this system won’t change it until environmental conditions change that elect those not dependent upon it for their offices.

In essence, the system deemphasizes ideology and its heuristic partisanship while magnifying the personal characteristics of a candidate. Party nominations aren’t there to help sort out the confusion caused by candidates masquerading, with the two prominent examples being Republicans-in-Name-Only who really have issue preferences more like national Democrats but adopt a GOP label to disguise that and some Democrats who follow a playbook of hyping their social conservatism while trying to hide their economic liberalism and big government preferences.

This obscuring of candidate issue preferences leads to reduced congruence between district voters’ majority views and the people they elect. This has two electoral effects: increasing votes for charismatic candidates and allowing more moderate candidates to gain election, which sometimes work interactively.

An environment like this works to the disadvantage of the majority party on issues and ideology, with more of its voters fooled into favoring candidates who legislate against those voters’ issue preferences. Thus, it’s no accident that while the state Republican chairman recently railed against the system, the Democrats’ executive director admitted that his party leaders looked only towards changing the system for congressional elections.

Democrats don’t mind giving away their systemic advantage in that case because those elections already operate in an environment where candidate views on national issues can’t be cloaked. These elections typically have more information more easily accessible about candidate issue preferences on usually more easily-understood issues (at least of the domestic variety). The same transformation eventually will occur concerning races for state offices, as technology advances to disseminate more information more inexpensively and educational attainment of Louisianans improves to permit them to do a better job identifying candidates who truly share their views.

Yet that won’t happen in the near future, and as a result enough obscurant Democrats and RINOs will continue to win legislative seats and to oppose efforts to reform the system that got them into office. Until conditions evolve to let more ideological candidates, particularly conservative Republicans, win more often, the critical mass in the Legislature needed to induce this alteration won’t exist.

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