SADOW: A Very Cautious Endorsement Of Closed Primaries

A legislative task force made a very small step in improving Louisiana policy outcomes by recommending the state move its congressional elections to a modified closed primary system.

Currently, the state operates under a blanket primary system, which really isn’t a primary at all. It’s a general election without party nominations where any candidate may run regardless of label (or none), and if no candidate secures an absolute majority the race then heads to a runoff between the highest two finishers.

And it’s extremely problematic from a policy-making view because it devalues the single most effective concept in aggregating, articulating, and clarifying issue preferences and holding politicians accountable: the political party. This tarnishing occurs because the state’s blanket primary system (except for presidential preference primaries) provides no incentives for voters to think in programmatic terms and it reduces penalties for disloyalty by a candidate to his articulated preferences, of which these may not match those generally of other candidates running under that label for similar offices.

In a pure closed primary system, only voters that affiliate with a party may participate in the most important decision it can make: the nomination of who represents that party in elections. The exclusivity of that relationship builds loyalty to candidates who articulate a consistent set of issue preferences and it prevents provocateurs at odds with those preferences from obscuring the meaning of the label. What happens with a blanket, or jungle, primary is that candidates often run fraudulent campaigns aimed at confusing voters and permitting factors other than the interrelated attitudes of partisanship and ideology (the former serving as a shorthand to the latter).

It works, because personalities and theater very often become more prominent in the vote decision than principles.

The other major factor which comes up often in a blanket or jungle primary is candidate image, which presents a major problem in translating majority voters’ issue preferences into policy. Through the blanket primary’s innate de-emphasizing of issues in favor of elevating personalities, it becomes easier for politicians to promote policy at odds with their constituents’ interests, without label clarity enforced by election results to deter them. This historically has been a major problem in Louisiana, first in the era of one-party rule by Democrats where the only meaningful competition occurred within the party, neutering labelling’s discriminatory power, and then with the blanket primary allowing label obfuscation through running everybody together.

A closed primary solves for this. It forces a party’s contestants to lay out a vision that then those who see themselves aligned in the main with candidates who largely agree on those issues may verify their choice as sufficiently credible to bear their standard. Issues don’t get lost in personal appeals deliberately designed to paper over, if not obscure, stark differences, and that produces better results than the lazier electorate a blanket primary creates with respect to willingness to evaluate on the basis of issues.

More importantly, a party primary promises accountability, because a winner who does not do what a majority of primary voters want can deny him the most important asset to gaining reelection: a party nomination to the general election and all the advantages use of that label conveys. Without this tool, it becomes harder to discipline and keep on track a politician who more easily can fall back onto making personal appeals that deliberately obscure or disingenuously present issue preferences.

This is why, at the final Closed Party Primary Task Force meeting this week, two people who spoke against the notion did so unconvincingly.

The first, Republican Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser, knows such a system applied to statewide races imperils his promotion prospects. Nungesser has a history of playing footsie with state Democrats. Doing so means he uses the dominant GOP label to mask an agenda much more approving of big government than the Republican brand is supposed to signify in the minds of voters on national issues.

Nungesser asserted that the system wasn’t broken, so it didn’t need fixing. That’s obviously wrong, as verified by Louisiana’s continued subpar economic and population growth over the past few decades, and a major contributor to that is the blanket primary system. That blanket primaries have given us politicians who facilitate oversized government with policy made too much on personalistic considerations that favor certain interests at the public’s expense; that’s fairly clear. Of course, Nungesser has been part and parcel of that system.

The other critique came from a Ph.D. candidate in political science, who essentially argued that the problem of later establishment of seniority – since federal law establishes a blanket primary as a general election and thus Louisiana must have its runoff after the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November, new members of Congress from the state lose seniority relative to other newcomers and get a later start on the logistics and privileges such as committee assignments – could be alleviated with forms other than a closed primary.

Unfortunately, he missed entirely the larger point (which I was teaching in courses on parties and elections I suspect before he was born) above: closed primaries provide the maximal strength for parties to fulfill their jobs of issue articulation, aggregation, and clarification and are the optimal device to demand accountability of all those who run under their labels.

The task force wisely disregarded these objections and moved forward by affirming the idea, although only for national elections. It did so in advocating for a modified closed primary, piggybacking off current law that allows a party’s governing institutions (for qualifying recognized parties, its state central committee) to permit whether to allow individuals who didn’t register under a label to vote in its presidential preference primaries.

It also recommended lengthening the time between a primary and the general election greater than the typical five-week span now existing, sensibly enough as almost no state has such a short interval between primary and general or primary/general and runoff elections. Some states have months in between. It advocated keeping the runoff election – a relic of one-party rule by Democrats that only a handful of mostly southern states maintain – but only if no candidate received an absolute majority for the general election, preferring to set a 35 percent threshold for primaries under the assumption that far fewer primaries would go to a runoff (note that restricting intra-party contests to primaries would make for few general election runoffs). All this was backed by a “sore loser” provision (candidates in primaries could not run in the general election if losing).

Things could be simplified by excising the runoff. During Louisiana’s national office closed primary era of 2008-10, the two biggest complaints were voter confusion over a bifurcated system and additional costs of extra runoff elections. Few states have such a requirement for either a primary or general election and it works, so Louisiana could avoid the second problem entirely by just getting rid of runoffs, period.

As well, it could jettison the no-party voter optional provision. The only real dispute on the subject matter came over whether, as in some states with modified closed primaries that allow non-party members to vote in a party’s primary if the voter makes an affirmation of affiliation with that party independently of registration, that allowance should trigger an automatic registration of that voter with that party. The panel rejected that recommendation, but stripping that allowance from a party’s state central committee would strengthen further the allure of affiliation to a party and the benefits previously identified.

Yet all of this, which will appear in a bill for the upcoming regular session of the Legislature, makes but a tiny down payment on reaping the rewards of stronger party identification insofar as state policy-making goes, precisely because it would affect only national offices. For these changes to have a real impact on steering state policy away from being politician-centered to idea-centered, and away from all the problems that focus on the former have caused Louisiana, this reform must apply to all elections in the state.

To prevent voter confusion, this bill needs passage – alongside one a separate bill to replicate it for all offices, regardless of the heartburn it would cause the Nungessers of the state, and for their passages as soon as possible.

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