By Staff Writer
Pundits have framed this year’s election cycle as having the potential to shift control of the United States Senate from Democrats to Republicans—and given the sheer number of close races across the country, nearly every seat in serious contention has the makings of being the deciding race. Due to Louisiana’s unusual election laws, however, the chattering class might not know which way the pendulum will swing until long after Election Day on November 4th.
Louisiana’s Senate race is, by all accounts, extremely close: both Republican and Democratic party committees (as well as outside superPACs) have poured money into the state in recent weeks. Incumbent Democrat Mary Landrieu, who has struggled to distance herself from an unpopular President, is facing Republican challenger Bill Cassidy, who some have characterized as “too boring” for a state with a history of colorful political characters.
Louisiana’s election laws are atypical in that they provide for a non-partisan “jungle primary” on November 4th—the general election day for the rest of the country—with the general election following a month later, if necessary, on December 6th. Under this system, candidates who earn more than 50% of the vote in the November primary win election to office outright; however, if no candidate makes it past the 50% mark, a second round election between the top two candidates occurs the next month. Recent polling indicates that neither Landrieu or Cassidy may be able to reach the 50% mark the first time around; thus, it appears likely that the second round will indeed occur in December.
Louisiana’s unusual election system has a storied history dating back nearly four decades. In the early 1970s, Democratic Governor Edwin Edwards pushed for an alternative to the closed primary system then in place: to win office, Edwards was forced to surmount a contentious primary and primary runoff, only to face Dave Treen—a well-funded Republican candidate who had sailed through the primary unscathed—in the general. Edwards believed that compelling all candidates for an office to face the same primary process would be far more equitable than allowing the uncontested candidate to have an advantage. The jungle primary was set for October, with the optional general election set for November.
For nearly twenty years, the two-round system remained in place. In 1997, however, the Supreme Court held in Foster v. Love that the October primary was in violation of federal election law, as the system could lead to the election of a federal officeholder before the general Election Day in the rest of the country. The holding relied on the Elections Clause of the United States Constitution, which provides that Congress may override state regulations by establishing uniform rules for federal elections.
In response, Louisiana moved the primary to November in order to keep the “jungle” format while still complying with federal law. This, however, led to another issue: because federal officeholders elected in November in the rest of the U.S. had seniority over those elected in Louisiana’s general election in December, freshman Congresspersons whose elections were not held until December were given the worst spaces in the House Office Buildings in Washington, DC. At the time, this was a major point of contention for Louisiana’s delegation, so in 2008, the Louisiana legislature took a completely different tack and voted for a closed primary system, in which candidates can only receive votes from registered members of their respective political party. The closed system, however, remained in place only for the 2008 and 2010 cycles. While Louisiana was switching between election systems throughout the early and mid-2000s, the Supreme Court held in 2008 in Washington State Grange v. Washington State Republican Party that that state’s open primary system—which was similar to Louisiana’s jungle primary—was constitutional. Thus, in the end, Louisiana’s legislature chose to move back to the jungle primary system in 2010, and it remains in place today.
The public policy behind the jungle primary system—equitable elections for candidates—is noble, but in effect, it draws out the voting process over several weeks, after most of the rest of the country has already elected their representatives. Thus, Louisiana is often forced to deal with partisan bickering long after other states’ newly elected representatives are hiring staff and making preparations for the next Congress. Additionally, jungle primaries tend to reinforce a two-party system: only the most well funded candidates are able to survive two high-profile races so close in time to each other.
Pros and cons notwithstanding, Louisiana’s quirky election system appears to accomplish one purpose: it will almost certainly keep the nation’s eyes focused squarely on the Bayou State clear through November. In a state known for showboating politicians—Huey Long, David Duke, and jungle primary initiator Edwin Edwards himself—perhaps that’s not such a bad thing.