SADOW: The Near-Miss SD-16 Menage A Trois Runoff Should Precipitate Election Reform

At the very least, change Louisiana election rules about runoffs. Better yet, change the entire election system.

That’s lesson to be drawn from the unusual result from last Saturday’s balloting in Senate District 16. The heavily-Republican district produced two GOP candidates with the exact same vote totals, trailing a Democrat. Under Louisiana law, that makes for a runoff among all three candidates, which would have made the Democrat the favorite to win a district someone from her party by the numbers had no business winning.

As it turned out, a recount turned up an additional vote for one of the Republicans, avoiding the ménage à trois. Regardless, the incident should serve as a signal to make some changes. The rule that a runoff should go to three candidates if the second- and third-ranked tie might make sense if Louisiana had an open or closed primary system. In that instance, a general election would feature party nominees (and any no party candidates), of which by definition there could be only one of each.

But Louisiana is the only state that doesn’t have primary elections (although journalists, politicians, and even the Secretary of State’s office and law carelessly throw around the term, which they shouldn’t because for federal offices jurisprudence defines this precisely that gives it distinct systemic consequences; see California Democratic Party v. Jones, Washington State Grange v. Washington State Republican Party, and, of course, Foster v. Love). States have a variety of methods to break ties in the case of general elections; Louisiana’s is to have another election when it involves a general election runoff – unlike in this case where it was in the general election itself. In fact, the most common form to resolve general election ties among the states is to draw lots, including states that have general election runoff requirements.

That solution would make much more sense in the context of the nonpartisan blanket primary – what elsewhere would be known at the state and local level as the general election. For a Louisiana general election for state and local offices – what elsewhere would be known as a general election runoff – the three-candidate race subverts the idea of a general election as a device to clarify choices for voters by presenting multiple representatives of a party.

However, why treat the symptom when you can eradicate the disease? The real problem in the first place is the deleterious nonpartisan blanket primary system. Born to satisfy Democrat elected officials, it disserves voters by deliberately obscuring the important information that a candidate’s partisanship can convey to them. That tendency would have reached its logical absurdity in the 16th SD situation had the three-way runoff occurred, which likely would have allowed a minority party’s candidate in that district to win a general election despite being outpolled by majority party candidates.

The reason why Louisiana uses this abomination still comes down to Democrat elites – but not all of them, just the whites. Were Louisiana to institute a genuine primary system, where the results of that election produce a party-nominated candidate for each party contesting the office, white Democrats would become close to extinct elected beyond local offices. Even if just an open primary (voters choose one party’s primary in which to participate for all contests on a ballot) rather than a closed primary (only voters affiliated with a party can participate in that party’s primary for all contests on the ballot), many white registered Democrats would participate in GOP primaries, creating an even bigger effective black majority among registered Democrats both statewide (at present 57 percent), in many districts, and give them voting majorities in many others.

In other words, party primaries for state offices would produce mostly black Democrats as their party’s nominees, from the top down. Had the 2015 gubernatorial elections occurred under an open primary, current Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards likely would not have won his party’s nomination, as a simple review of 2019 minor statewide office results demonstrate – in all but one instance, where black Democrats ran (and in two instances they were the only ones to oppose GOP incumbents) they finished as runners-up to Republicans.

So, while Republicans have shown interest in scrapping the blanket primary, white Democrats will fight tooth-and-nail to preserve it – including Edwards if he wins reelection. But with Republicans on the cusp of supermajorities in the next Legislature, that may make a gubernatorial veto attempt moot. And even if some Republicans would defect from overriding because they think they owe their job to the current system (this year’s results in Senate District 36 providing a classic example), enough black Democrat legislators would fill the void.

For black Democrats do little more than live on a white-run plantation of a party, despite being the large numerical majority. While the state party’s leader state Sen. Karen Carter Peterson is black, with her recent personal troubles she has become a cypher politically. She has become so irrelevant that even after the party’s disastrous showing in last week’s elections that nobody has called for her figurehead.

While its executive committee has mostly black members, the day-to-day operation of the party largely is in the hands of whites including its executive director. And, as is the case in all states regarding parties who have one of their own as governor, the real governance comes from that (in this case white) official.

Louisiana’s black Democrats could begin their emancipation from white minority rule by instituting genuine party primaries. Currently, black Democrat registrants outnumber whites in 22 of 39 Senate districts and in 51 of 105 House districts. Only the blanket primary keeps them from nominating at least half of all Democrats who advance to current general election runoffs between two major party candidates.

Thus, regardless of who wins the state’s top spot next month, a path exists to prevent the potential subversion of democratic rule that the SD 16 case presented by legislators junking the blanket primary system.

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