On Nov. 8, Louisiana voters go to the polls, just like in states across the country — only they’ll technically be voting in a primary election that includes candidates from all corners. Their votes may determine which candidates will occupy offices at all levels of the state’s government, or which candidates go on to a runoff.
Here’s a look at Louisiana’s unique system, unofficially called a “jungle primary,” and discussions around changing it:
WHAT IS A ‘JUNGLE PRIMARY’?
In what’s thought of as a traditional primary, political candidates only compete against other contenders within their own parties for nominations, to then advance to the general election. States hold their primaries on a variety of dates, with winners competing with one another on the November ballot.
But in a “jungle primary” or “majority vote primary,” all candidates regardless of party run against each other on the same ballot. If no one candidate tops 50% in that primary, the top two vote-getters advance to a head-to-head runoff, which can end up pitting two Republicans or two Democrats against each other.
Even though it’s called a primary, this happens on general Election Day.
HAS LOUISIANA ALWAYS DONE THIS?
For state, parish and municipal elections, Louisiana has used an open primary system since 1975. It was designed by then-Gov. Edwin Edwards, who had faced two tough Democratic primary rounds in the 1971 election before his general election run against a Republican opponent who hadn’t had the same primary challenges.
Open primaries were first used for Louisiana’s federal elections in 1978, when state lawmakers changed rules for U.S. House and Senate. It’s not used for Louisiana’s presidential primary.
HAVE THERE BEEN PROBLEMS?
Louisiana didn’t use open primaries from 2008 to 2010 because of legal challenges.
Initially, state lawmakers set up Louisiana’s open primaries in late September or early October, with general election dates conforming with November’s federal election date. Candidates who exceeded the 50% primary threshold were declared “elected,” rendering the November general election date unnecessary for those contests.
That timeline yielded a lawsuit by a group of Louisiana voters, who challenged the open primary calendar based on the argument that federal law requires U.S. House and Senate members to be elected on the centralized November election date.
In 1997, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the system violated federal law, since “over 80% of the contested congressional elections in Louisiana have ended as a matter of law with the open primary.” Subsequent to that decision, Louisiana moved the congressional primary date to November’s federal election day, pushing any needed runoffs to December.
There have been a few tweaks. Primary day was briefly moved to October in 2005. A year later, Gov. Kathleen Blanco signed a law that closed Louisiana’s 2008 congressional primaries, but state lawmakers voted two years later to bring back nonpartisan federal primaries.
The system can lead to immensely crowded primary ballots, like one for an open U.S. Senate seat in 2016 that boasted 24 candidates.
HAVE THERE BEEN RECENT EFFORTS TO CHANGE THIS?
Last year, Louisiana lawmakers considered reinstituting closed primaries; that idea was ultimately scrapped.
Republican Sen. Sharon Hewitt of Slidell said she brought up the notion in part because of concerns that Louisiana’s open primary often has the state electing members of Congress later than the rest of the country.
In competitive congressional races, particularly for open seats without an incumbent, races often are pushed into a December runoff — a month after nearly every other state has settled its seats. Some Louisiana Republicans including U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise argued that that system puts Louisiana’s newest congressional delegation members at a disadvantage in seniority, committee assignments and orientation sessions.
Other Republicans, including Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser, actively lobbied against the bill — limited to congressional elections but seen as a possible stepping stone to wider closed primaries for other types of elections — arguing that changing the system would shrink voter participation, confuse and frustrate voters and lead to more partisanship.
The feud raised questions about whether the bill could pass, and Hewitt said she would continue studying the issue.
DO OTHER STATES DO ANYTHING SIMILAR?
Two states, California and Washington, use a “top two” primary format, using a common ballot listing all candidates. California candidates list party affiliations, whereas Washington candidates list party “preferences,” according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
In both states, the top two vote-getters in each race advance to the general election. But unlike in Louisiana, no one can win the job outright in the primary even if they get more than half the vote.
Nebraska legislators are elected on a nonpartisan basis, running without party designation and on the same primary ballot, a system not dissimilar to local nonpartisan elections across the country, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
For the first time this year, Alaska elections were being held under a unique new system that scraps party primaries and instead holds an open primary in which all candidates for a given race appear on ballots, regardless of party affiliation, followed by ranked voting in the general election.
This system, in place for both state and federal elections, was narrowly approved by voters in 2020 and upheld by the state Supreme Court earlier this year.
Meg Kinnard can be reached at https://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP
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