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Free Citizen

This writer espouses individual liberty, free markets, and limited government.

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Location: Jackson, Mississippi, United States

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Louisiana House Passes "Open Primary" For Congress

On April 14, the Louisiana House of Representatives approved what is popularly called the "open primary" for the state's congressional elections. The vote for HB 292 was 72-26, with a higher number of Republicans backing it than Democrats. If enacted, the change would take place with the 2012 elections. All candidates would be on the ballot on the first Tuesday in November; any necessary runoff would be held in December.

The Bayou State has used "open primaries" for its state and local elections since 1975. It also used this system for its congressional elections from 1978 to 2006, with the November/December schedule starting in 1998. The state restored party primaries for Congress in 2008, but the "open primary" proponents say that HB 292 will save the state some $6.6 million in every federal election cycle.

Jeffrey Sadow, associate professor of political science at Louisiana State University in Shreveport, says that the legislators voted on the bill based on misinformation: "... on three occasions [state Rep. Hunter] Greene asserted that '19 or 20' states had an 'open' primary..."

This was evidently a reference to the party primary system that Mississippi and 20 other states currently use. The parties hold separate primaries, and each voter picks a party on primary day.

The reason this matters is that a representative or senator who is not elected until December will presumably not have as good a choice of committee assignments as one who is elected in November. In reality, Georgia is now the only state in which it's possible to have a runoff for Congress in December (U. S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss [R] won such a runoff in December 2008). Georgia is also the only state that has party primaries AND runoff general elections.

The only state now using a system similar to the one passed by the Louisiana House for its congressional elections is Washington. That state-- which calls it the "top two"-- has the first round in August and the runoff on the first Tuesday in November[1] (Washington always has a runoff, even if one candidate gets 50-plus percent in the first round). As Professor Sadow notes, the Washington system, which the state first used in 2008, is facing ongoing litigation, including a trial in U. S. district court in October 2010 (Washington State Republican Party v. Washington State and Washington State Grange).

It will be interesting to see how HB 292 fares in the Louisiana Senate.

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[1] California will have Proposition 14, a measure for a "top two open primary" for state and congressional elections, on its June 8 ballots. Like the Washington state "top two," Prop. 14 would limit the November ballot to only two candidates per office. As applied to congressional elections, this is almost certainly unconstitutional.

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