Louisiana considering changes to ‘jungle primary’ election system

Louisiana is in the middle of revisiting a decades-old debate of whether to jettison its “jungle primary” election system that regularly sees the state selecting its members of Congress later than the rest of the country.

The Legislature briefly changed the congressional elections process in the mid-2000s, but quickly reversed course amid complaints about voter confusion and cost. But the debate resurfaced this month, prompted by new legislative leaders and encouraged by several members of Louisiana’s congressional delegation.

A task force created by Senate Republican leader Sharon Hewitt to make recommendations will submit those for consideration in the regular session that starts in April. Any widespread redesign would represent a sea change for Louisiana politics.

States have myriad primary systems, though Louisiana remains unique in its approach, according to data from the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Since 1975, with the exception of a three-year span for congressional elections, Louisiana has had an open primary system. All candidates, regardless of party, run against one another on the ballot for local, statewide and congressional elections. If no one candidate tops 50% in that primary, the top two vote-getters advance to a head-to-head runoff.

That can force Louisiana’s congressional elections to be decided in a December runoff—a month after nearly every other state has settled its seats. This year, for example, Republican Luke Letlow didn’t win the 5th District seat representing northeast and central Louisiana until Dec. 5.

U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise, R-Jefferson, says Louisiana’s newest congressional delegation members often miss orientation sessions where committee assignments are negotiated, people build relationships and offices are assigned. U.S. Rep. Clay Higgins, a Republican first elected in a December runoff, agreed. 

Not every member of Louisiana’s congressional delegation is pushing for change, however.

“I missed orientation, and my life was still the same,” says GOP U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy. “I’m kind of indifferent, but if someone could show me a system that did not cost more, I’d consider it.”

Years ago, Louisiana tried to hold its congressional primary in October, with runoffs in November. The state got into trouble with federal courts, because it regularly elected members of Congress before the rest of the nation.

But if Louisiana officials want to settle the congressional seats in November, agreeing on an approach could provoke divisions.

Should Louisiana move to a straight closed primary system where candidates from each political party run against each other, and the top vote-getting candidate from each party reaches a general election? Where do no-party voters fit? 

Should the state find another way to shift the calendar for congressional races while maintaining an open primary? And should different elections have different rules, since only the congressional races have the calendar problem? Read the full analysis from The Associated Press.