Congressman Steve Scalise said Tuesday he’s pushing Louisiana lawmakers to change the timing of federal elections to end the state’s unique practice of holding primaries in November, which he says puts new members reelected in December runoffs at a disadvantage.
Scalise, a Jefferson Republican who was reelected U.S. House Minority Whip Tuesday, said he thinks Republican leaders in the state Legislature will get on board with the idea of holding primaries before November, like other states do.
While freshmen representatives from across the country are doing orientation, jockeying for committee assignments, getting offices and picking their staff, Scalise noted the lone open seat in Louisiana, District 5, doesn’t have a winner yet. Two Republicans, Luke Letlow, of Start, and state Rep. Lance Harris, of Alexandria, are facing off in a December runoff and Scalise said they’re missing out on valuable time in D.C., where seniority is prized.
“Our new member for the congressional district is not part of that. That happens every time we have an open seat,” Scalise said. “They’re going to get the scraps of what’s left over for committee assignments. They’re going to miss the opportunity to bond with their fellow freshmen.”
Louisiana is the only state in the nation to hold its primaries in November and general elections in December, according to Wendy Underhill, the director of elections and redistricting at the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Louisiana’s elections are unique in multiple respects. For one, primaries are not “closed,” in which Republicans run against Republicans and Democrats run against Democrats, resulting in a Republican-Democrat general election. Instead, the state has a “jungle primary” system, where all candidates appear on the same ballot in the primary, and the top two vote-getters, regardless of party, advance to a runoff if no candidate wins more than 50% of the vote.
Secondly, that “jungle primary” happens in November for federal races, when the rest of the country is holding general elections. That means any runoffs happen in December, a full month after most of the rest of the U.S. has solidified its representation in Congress.
Louisiana’s Legislature, which is dominated by Republicans, as well as Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards, would have to agree to change state law to move the election timing.
The Governor will review any proposal that comes before him during next year’s Legislative Session and seek input from elections officials on how moving the election date and closing party primaries would affect voting in Louisiana.
State Sen. Sharon Hewitt, a Slidell Republican who chairs the influential Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee, created a task force to look at several election issues, including whether to move from an open primary system to a closed primary and whether to change the timing.
She said the prospect of having Louisiana’s elections end in November gained widespread support in the first meeting of the task force. Members include Scalise, Attorney General Jeff Landry, Sec. of State Kyle Ardoin and lawmakers of both parties.
But Hewitt said states can’t select their Congress members before November. In Louisiana, the “jungle” primary system often results in incumbent members of Congress winning outright in the primary.
Hewitt, who supports changing the primary elections to closed party contests, said that would be one way to fix that issue. Another would be to hold open primaries where the top two vote-getters – regardless of whether one gets more than 50% of the vote – advance to a runoff, like in California.
“We have to find a way to settle the election in November,” Hewitt said. “Closing the primaries is the most obvious way to do it.”
The idea to end Louisiana’s unique “jungle” primary system is not new. In fact, the state briefly experimented with closed party primaries just 12 years ago, for the 2008 and 2010 cycles, before switching back.
Republican and Democratic party officials as recently as 2018 appeared open to the idea of moving to a closed primary system. Republican officials have lamented elections in which two Democrats nearly squeak into a runoff in a deeply Republican state.
A spokesperson for the Louisiana Democratic Party didn’t return messages Tuesday. The previous executive director two years ago indicated the party was open to it.
Hewitt said she wants to also put more time between the primary and general elections, giving candidates more time to fundraise and heal divisions brought on by intra-party candidate feuds in the jungle primary.
U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy, a Republican who was re-elected in the November 8 primary, said he was “indifferent” to changing the timing of the elections. Cassidy was elected in a December runoff in 2014, missing orientation in D.C.
“I missed orientation and my life was still the same,” Cassidy said on a call with reporters. “I like the way we save some money … the way we currently do our elections.” But he said he’s open to the idea.
When Louisiana reverted back to open primaries in 2010, lawmakers publicly cited cost savings. The open primaries guarantee only two elections to win a race. Closed primaries could result in three elections, if a runoff was needed to decide a primary.
Rep. Blake Miguez, chair of the House GOP delegation, said Scalise “has a great idea to put Louisiana on equal footing with most other states.”
“For a newly elected Louisiana Congressman who won by a runoff election, it puts a very real meaning to starting at the bottom and working your way up,” Miguez said. “In some instances, the incoming Louisiana Congressman is ranked last at number 435. Since seniority is important in D.C. as it relates to influence, this puts Louisiana starting at a disadvantage.”
Scalise said he also supports the idea of moving to a closed primary, but he thinks the change to holding the general election in November needs to take place regardless.
“Whether we stay with open primaries or go to closed primaries we need to end our elections in November not in December,” Scalise said. “Because it’s hurting Louisiana.”