GURVICH: Let’s Close The Deal On Closed Party Primaries

It is time for closed primaries! Not just for our federal representatives in Congress, but for all elections throughout our state. The vast majority of Republicans want closed primaries, as do an increasing number of Democrats. So why has our legislature not already made the change?

For those of you who may not understand the difference between Louisiana’s current open primary system and our former closed primary system, allow me to explain how we got where we are today. In the traditional closed party primary system, only party members could run in the party primary and only members of that same party could vote. Once the party candidates were decided in party primaries, a general election in which all registered voters could participate decided the winner for that public office. Simple enough, right?

Then in 1975, Louisiana changed to an open, or jungle, primary system, wherein every candidate runs against every other candidate, regardless of party, which is why this is called an “open” primary system. This required a change in our election laws, which was accomplished easily enough by the heavy Democrat majorities in both chambers of the legislature. These gentlemen (and they were nearly all men) had become concerned about Democrat on Democrat attacks in our then-existing closed primary system.

Of course, they also wanted to change an election system which ultimately matched them against a Republican, because the GOP would select candidates in caucuses and have well-funded, if not quite well-known, Republican candidates waiting after the brutal Democrat primaries were over.

Put a different way, Democrat politicians did not want the voters to have a real choice of candidates who actually held, God forbid, differing views on how to govern. By the way, care to guess who was elected in the first open primary election in Louisiana? Why it was none other than Edwin W. Edwards. What a coincidence…

And so our election laws were changed and Louisiana became an open primary state for the greater glory of Edwin Edwards. Under present law, if no candidate receives more than fifty percent of the vote in the primary, a run-off is held about a month later between the two candidates who received the most votes.

FYI, there was one brief exception to open primaries, when we returned to a closed primary system for congressional elections in the mid-2000’s. Closed primaries for congressmen worked just fine for the voters, but a sufficient number of state legislators felt threatened by the closed primary system to warrant a quick return to open primaries.

Now, there are many problems with open primaries, problems acknowledged even by supporters of open primaries. One of which is the fact that our congressmen are often elected in a December runoff, while virtually all of their colleagues are elected in early November. A December election is almost sure to be a low turnout affair at a very inconvenient time for voters.

Furthermore, Washington is all about seniority, and seniority follows a congressman throughout his entire political career. By arriving in Congress a month late, many of our congressmen have missed an important orientation, leadership elections, the opportunity to hire good staffers, and many chances to meet and form relationships with their new colleagues. They also end up being assigned the least agreeable offices in out of the way places.

There are serious problems with state open primary elections as well: With only a month between the open primary and the runoff, candidates have little time to raise money and re-orient their campaigns to fight a new opponent. But the most important consideration of all, and the one that opponents of closed primaries rarely confront, can be summed up in one simple question: Why can’t the members of a political party, which is after all a private organization, decide who their candidate will be? It is, after all, their party, is it not?

In the three years that I have chaired the LAGOP, I have met few proponents of our present open primary system and thousands of Republican activists and elected officials who wish to change back to a closed primary system. The vast majority of Republicans want nothing more than to be able to choose their party’s candidate for a given political office. Democrats, an increasing number of whom are trending to a preference for closed primaries, deserve the same right to choose their party’s candidates.

Senator Sharon Hewitt is chairing a task force on closed primaries, and a bill will shortly be filed in the legislature to revert back to closed primaries. It is to be hoped that this time Senate President Page Cortez and Speaker of the House Clay Schexnayder will do all in their power to pass a state and federal closed primary bill in this session. Too much time has already been wasted!

Louis Gurvich, Chairman
Republican Party of Louisiana

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