Regardless of how you feel about what happened in yesterday’s runoffs, this ought to be the final time that Louisiana suffers through another December runoff in a federal election. The Bayou State should return to a regular party primary, leaving behind its “open” or “jungle” primary that makes it a national anomaly.
The jungle primary might have been somewhat defensible when it was held in the early autumn and the runoff was held on the normal, national Election Day in November. But that was before the courts, in their profound unwisdom, misinterpreted the Constitution to forbid such an arrangement.
Even under the old arrangement, the jungle primary system had flaws. Now, it’s a travesty.
First, consider why it was already a problem. Among the reasons:
- The jungle primary system distorts public opinion, either by promoting extremist candidates or by encouraging “tactical” voting rather than measuring actual voter preferences. The first problem is greater: If three or more serious candidates occupy the broad “middle” of the ideological spectrum, and they run about even with one another, then those on the extremes with fervent support bases can edge their way to the runoff even if they could never get a majority within their own party. This is what happened, infamously, in 1991 when neo-Nazi David Duke and populist scofflaw Edwin Edwards gave Louisiana the runoff from hell.
On the flip side, the jungle primary discourages lesser-known but serious candidates — such as, this year, Rob Maness (if you liked him) — from making headway, even if they impress voters who might choose them in a regular, closed primary. Citizens trying to engineer the best runoff matchup, rather than choosing their actual favorite, are loath to “waste” a vote on somebody who hasn’t proved himself in a party primary. Unless the longshot is a rabble-rousing demagogue, it’s harder for him/her to break through the jungle underbrush than it would be to gain traction first within a more discrete portion of the electorate.
- The jungle primary can result in one party winning a race even if it doesn’t enjoy majority support. How? Let’s say a district is overwhelmingly Democratic. With so many Democrats, it likely will have more Democrats who want to run for office. So, in this hypothetical case, seven Democrats file for a particular office, while Republicans, drawing from a narrower base, only produce two candidates. The seven Democrats could divide, say, 65 percent of the vote, with none getting more than 15 percent. The two Republicans could split the other 35 percent of the vote evenly — and both of them would make the runoff, guaranteeing a GOP victory even though nearly two-thirds of that district’s voters oppose its philosophy. This would be perverse.
Second, the post-November runoff in federal elections is particularly troublesome. Among those reasons:
- In the short term at least, it puts the eventual victor at a disadvantage to all other freshmen representatives or senators. All the others would get a five-week head start on the Louisianans — which can actually make quite a difference for the first year or so — in lobbying for the best committee assignments for their states, forging friendships and alliances, hiring the best staff (especially staff superstars who worked for retiring congressmen) and setting up office systems that work for constituents from day one.
- Being the site of the nation’s only remaining races distorts the election context. When Louisiana’s seven federal races (six House, one Senate) are part of 468 total congressional races nationwide, then New Yorkers and Californians and Floridians all have their own races about which to worry, rather than butting into ours. And because nobody knows in November what the national results will be, Louisiana voters of all philosophical stripes have relatively equal interest in Louisiana’s outcome. But once it’s clear which party is in control nationally, the Louisiana runoff can feature a state electorate where one side is more energized while the other is more dispirited — in short, an uneven playing field.
Louisiana already is, in many wonderful ways, an oddity of a state, with a unique culture. But this jungle-primary/December runoff system makes it not wonderfully unique but self-destructively weird. It’s time to end that weirdness.
Quin Hillyer is a contributing editor for National Review. You can follow him on Twitter, @QuinHillyer. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.