Closed party primary bill moves rapidly in special session

Rep. Julie Emerson
Rep. Julie Emerson, R-Carencro, is carrying House Bill 17, which would end Louisiana's jungle primary system. Photo by Travis Gauthier

This story was first reported by Louisiana Illuminator and republished with permission.

A Louisiana House committee advanced a proposal Tuesday to adopt a closed party primary system that would prohibit third-party or unaffiliated voters from voting in primary elections, though the major parties could later decide whether to allow them to participate. 

House Bill 17, sponsored by Rep. Julie Emerson, R-Carencro, cleared the House and Governmental Affairs Committee in a 11-4 vote. From there, the bill would normally head to the Appropriations Committee where the cost of the process would be considered. But House lawmakers voted to suspend that rule to expedite the bill to the House floor, where it will be considered Wednesday. 

Since 1975, Louisiana has had an open “jungle” primary system where all candidates, regardless of party affiliation, run in the same election in which any registered voter can cast a ballot for any candidate. 

A candidate can win outright with more than 50% of the votes in the primary. If no one receives more than 50%, the two candidates with the most votes advance to a general election runoff to decide the winner.

Emerson’s bill would switch the state to a closed system in which candidates of the same party face off in their own partisan primary election — one strictly for Democrats and one strictly for Republicans. Only registered Democrats would be able to vote in the Democratic primary, and only registered Republicans would be able to vote in the Republican primary. However, the parties would be able to choose whether to allow unaffiliated voters to participate. 

Winners of the primaries become their party nominees and would then face each other in a general election.

“It’s certainly my opinion that when you are electing somebody for your nominee for a party, it should be those members of that party,” Emerson said.

The switch would apply to all congressional and statewide races, including legislative and judicial offices, the Public Service Commission and Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Independent and other political parties are officially recognized in Louisiana but haven’t won enough votes in prior elections to qualify to hold a primary election. Third-party candidates would not be able to run in a general election unless they submitted a petition with a certain number of signatures. The number varies according to the office. For congressional races, at least 1,000 signatures would be required.  

The closed primary proposal came directly from Gov. Jeff Landry, who addressed it in his speech to the legislature Monday on the opening day of the special session. Landry suggested all other Southern states have closed primaries, but the governor’s statement is factually incorrect.  

A majority of states have some form of an open or partially open primary system that allows voters, regardless of party or affiliation status, to vote, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Only two Southern states — Florida and Kentucky — have closed primaries. California and Washington have jungle or so-called “top-two” primaries similar to Louisiana. Nebraska has a nonpartisan system in which all candidates run without party designation on the same primary ballot.

Some lawmakers expressed concern over whether Emerson’s proposal would disenfranchise independents and other minor party voters. More than 820,000 registered voters in Louisiana, 27% of the total, are neither Republican nor Democrat — significantly more than the 548,000 who put Landry into the governor’s office. 

Other lawmakers dismissed those concerns. 

“Every registered voter in the general election is still going to have the ability for their vote to count,” Rep. Josh Carlson, R-Lafayette, said. “We’re not talking about any system that would disenfranchise any voter, take away their ability to vote.”

Steven Procopio, president of the nonpartisan Public Affairs Research Council, disputed the notion that the switch would be harmless. He pointed out that Louisiana’s previous use of a closed primary system stemmed from so-called “racial primaries” that disenfranchised minorities until the courts finally outlawed. 

“You can’t disenfranchise on the basis of race,” Procopio said. “You can disenfranchise — and it also works in redistricting — on the basis of party. So it is in fact legal, but you are in fact stopping people from voting.”

Some lawmakers on the committee suggested a closed primary system would improve Louisiana economically but offered no data or evidence to support their claims. 

Secretary of State Nancy Landry, a Republican, told the committee she is concerned about the logistics and legality of switching to closed primaries. The bill would take effect once the governor signs it.  

“We’re concerned about rushing this process and not having the right amount of time to make sure we’re doing everything right and we’re not forgetting anything,” said Landry, who is not related to the governor. “We would prefer to have more time to implement this… At first glance, it looks like we can do it, but that’s if nothing goes wrong.”

Lawmakers previously switched to closed primaries only for congressional elections back in 2008 and 2010, but they reversed the change when the system became confusing for voters. 

Nancy Landry said she is also concerned about ballot access. If the switch causes too much of a burden or is confusing for voters, it might draw a voting rights lawsuit that could halt or delay the upcoming 2024 presidential election in Louisiana.

“If there is litigation involving that issue, it could be a stay of the elections, which would throw off all of our elections,” she said. “And in a federal election year, that could be very much a disaster.”

Baton Rouge pollster John Couvillon of JMC Analytics presented lawmakers with the results of a poll that asked voters which system they would prefer. Approximately 65% of respondents said they preferred Louisiana’s current open primary system, and 56% said they opposed changing to a closed system.  Couvillon conditioned the poll for a national political action committee that opposes closed primaries.

The cost of Emerson’s proposal, according to the bill’s fiscal note, would be nearly $10 million for the first year.