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Will our election system be changing?

Dan Juneau -   Oct 18, 2007

A case now before the U.S. Supreme Court may have significant implications for how we elect candidates for statewide and legislative offices in Louisiana.

 The court has already heard oral arguments regarding the constitutionality of the State of Washington’s election system. Washington’s primary elections closely resemble Louisiana’s.

All candidates—regardless of party affiliation—run in the primary, and then the top two vote getters meet in the runoff. The federal courts have already forced our Legislature to change from an “open” to a “closed” primary for congressional elections. Under the new system for federal elections, Republicans and Democrats have their separate primary elections with the winners of those two races meeting in the general election.

Moving from an open primary election to a closed one could significantly alter the electoral landscape in Louisiana. Under the current system, a candidate needs to get enough votes from independents and voters in either party to make a runoff. Depending on the strength and philosophical alignment of the field, candidates can develop crossover voting strategies that vary from election to election. Under an open primary, there would be little if any crossover strategy for the primary.

Candidates have to get a majority support from voters in their own party unless one of the parties allows independents to participate in its primary. If neither of the parties allows independents to participate, independents would then be basically disenfranchised until the general election.

Another major feature of a closed primary system is that there will always be a general election because no candidate can win the election outright in the primary. This will have a significant influence on campaign strategy in elections. Candidates will have to craft messages that will best enable them to win over the members of their political party as well as to sustain or refine those messages to win crossover votes in the general election. Budgeting financial resources will also take on some new nuances in such a system.

If the State of Washington’s election system is thrown out—and during the oral arguments, many members of the Supreme Court appeared to have serious reservations about that system—then Louisiana’s election system will be quickly and perhaps successfully challenged. If this happens, one of the most important consequences might be the impact of such a change on party membership.

If independents are at the mercy of the two political parties regarding their ability to vote in the primary election, will they continue to remain independent or align with one of the parties?  And if they do join one, what impact will that have on party strength? If one of the parties decides to exclude independent voters from its primary but the other includes them, what impact will it have on how those independents’ vote in the general election?

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