While political party weakness reverberates throughout Louisiana’s immature political system – witness the House speaker election – the majority Republicans in the Legislature can reduce the self-infliction in how parties govern themselves.
At present, the state creates a two-tier system for a recognized party’s governance. If a party can claim at least 30 percent of the state’s registrants, it must elect to the governing state central committee one male and female member for each House district, or 210 total. Otherwise, it can set up the composition of the SCC however it likes (except that if it is the party of the governor, he or his designee has a seat).
The change to the law that released all but Democrats out of this straitjacket came over three decades ago, when Democrats held a solid majority of registrants and Republicans not many. Two decades ago, the GOP only claimed 22 percent, but now have 31 percent.
Back then, Democrats nationwide had a spate of mandating parity by sex in elected party governance. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; in fact, Republicans do it for appointive national committee members.
But Louisiana Republicans chose another method at the state level. They elected using state senate districts as the basic unit, and from each would elect proportionally to Republican candidate support in elections, leaving some districts with as few as 2 and as many as 11 to total 230. No requirements exist for parity by sex or anything else.
Because state law would require the party to mold itself into the same model followed by Democrats, Republican leaders sued, and they have a case, as it has happened before. In 1996, the party successfully invalidated a Louisiana statute that set the divide at only 25 percent and dictated number of representatives per House district by number of registrants. The state Supreme Court correctly noted that U.S. Supreme Court jurisdiction allowed state intervention into party governance only when it had a compelling interest, and none was present then, or now.
In the upcoming regular session, legislators simply should excise any reference to setting a number of seats on an SCC and the districting by which they win election (the Court has ruled that a state may specify that counties could appoint the same number of delegates to the SCC, but in that case state law also empowered the state party convention as the ultimate governing authority, a feature absent in Louisiana law). With the court case having discouraged GOP Sec. of State Kyle Ardoin from qualifying his party’s candidates for these offices earlier this month in time for the presidential preference primaries this spring, the Republicans could qualify and elect their candidates in the fall election cycle after the legal change.
At the same time, given this new freedom, parties shouldn’t go overboard. Democrats seem happy with their arrangement, but the current system leaves too many vacancies (one tenth this year) in part because of the parity requirement. They should eliminate that. And Republicans historically have suffered the same indifference because of the large number of seats; perhaps they should revert to the situation a quarter-century ago before the law passed that they challenged where they sent one per House district and then added 64 bonus seats on the basis of registered Republicans in the district (0 to 4 extra).
Particularly in the case of Democrats, it might be fashionable to follow ideology with its attempt to create faux equal representation with its parity requirement. But the real injury comes when a governance structure is unwieldy enough that its districting creates seats no one wants to contest, robbing registrants of their ability to elect their own representatives. With a state political culture that has made Louisiana parties the country’s weakest and least relevant, they don’t need to shoot themselves in their own feet.
The GOP-majority legislature should change the law this spring to let parties do what they want in stocking their SCCs. That’s what its party wants, and it could help the party of their adversaries become more relevant as part of that.