Louisiana returns to spoiled elections for U.S House and U.S Senate

by Rob Richie // Published May 10, 2008
ICongress has authority over congressional elections, but typically delegates that authority to states for many decisions. Louisiana is a good example.

Decades ago, Louisiana adopted a majority runoff system for congressional and state elections (leaving presidential elections with plurality rules allowing "spoilers"). There would be a first round with all candidates running in one race. If there were a majority winner, that candidate would take office. If not, the top two would face off in a runoff, with the winner sure to win a majority of that runoff vote once the field was reduced to two.

There are some perversities with this system that we've described in the past, such as having a runoff between two candidates of one party even though the other party would have strong support in the district. But it at least did uphold the majority principle better than plurality voting.

Last year, the Louisiana legislature quietly eliminated this system for congressional elections. It now has a system where the parties must nominate candidates in separate primaries, with a majority threshold, and then have a general election without a majority threshold.

Sure enough, in Louisiana's first elections with the new system this spring -- for two special elections to the U.S. House -- a candidate won the general election without a majority of the vote despite having faced the voters a full three times in two different primary elections (first round and runoff) and the general election -- see my recent oped submission about this election below and the better alternative of instant runoff voting.

And now Democrats are facing a rebellion from some African American leaders who are threatening to run spoiler candidacies in the November election. Here's an item from the Congressional Quarterly's daily update:

The Lafayette Daily Advertiser reports that three black Louisiana state lawmakers "say they are weighing whether to run" for three U.S. House seats this fall as independents, a move that could splinter Democratic support in the races. State Sens. Don Cravins Jr. and Lydia Jackson and state Rep. Michael Jackson say the state and national Democratic parties have failed to recruit and support black candidates to run for federal and statewide offices." Cravins said he might run as an independent in the 7th Distrct, now held by GOP Rep. Charles Boustany Jr. Michael Jackson, a Baton Rouge Democrat, might challenge newly elected Democrat Don Cazayoux in the 6th District, while Lydia Jackson of Shreveport said she is weighing a run for the 4th District seat of retiring GOP Rep. Jim McCrery.

I guess you get what you ask for. If you don't want majority voting, you can get elections won by candidates opposed by a majority.

By the way, that's not the only race where this kind of vote-splitting may happen -- both parties have their fair share. Here's another CQ item about a key congressional race in Florida that drew much attention in 2006 due to a highly unusual number of "undervotes" (non-counted ballots) in an area where the Democrat ran particularly well:

The Sarasota Herald Tribune reports that Jan Schneider has filed to challenge Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Fla., as an independent. Schneider was the Democratic nominee for the seat in 2004, and analysts say she could make it harder for this year's likely nominee, Christine Jennings, to win. Schneider said she will run as an anti-war candidate dedicated to bringing U.S. troops home, saying Jennings has not been strong enough on that issue. Jennings, who beat Schneider for the nomination in 2006, said she tried to make peace, but received no response.

Onto my recent Louisiana oped submission below.

It's time for an instant runoff: Three elections – but still no majority winner By Rob Richie

Like all of us, Louisiana taxpayers fund a lot of necessary government services. But is it sensible to pay for three elections to fill a vacancy to the U.S. House – and still not get a majority winner?

That's what just happened in the sixth congressional district. On May 3rd, Louisiana held general elections to fill two U.S. House seats. In the sixth, Don Cazayoux – facing voters for the third time this spring, with a first round in March and an April 8th runoff (where turnout dropped by 27%) – won with 49% over Republican Woody Jenkins and two independents.

Meanwhile, voters in Calfornia on April 8th filled a U.S. House vacancy in a single election – something Louisiana used to be able to do before its 2007 law establishing a primary-runoff-general election system that often will three elections to elect congressional seats.

There's real value in requiring our representatives to prove they have majority support among the people they will represent. But there's something wrong when turnout plunges in key election on the way – and even more questionable when winners don't need majority support.

It doesn't have to be this way. Louisiana can adopt instant runoff voting, starting with such vacancy elections. Backed by both Sen. John McCain and Sen. Barack Obama, instant runoff voting determines a majority winner in one efficient election. Indeed Louisiana out-of-state military voters are already using the system.

Here's how it works. Voters gain the option to rank candidates in order of preference rather than select only one choice. If no candidate wins with a first choice majority, the two candidates with the most votes advance to the instant runoff. Ballots cast for eliminated candidates are added to the totals of the runoff candidates according to whichever runoff candidate is ranked next on the ballot. That's all there is to it.

Instant runoff voting has been adopted to replace two rounds of voting in jurisdictions around the country, including Cary (NC), Minneapolis (MN), Pierce County (WA) and Oakland (CA). Instant runoff ballots are now used by overseas and military voters during traditional runoffs in South Carolina and Arkansas in addition to Louisiana.

Instant runoff voting draws support from across the spectrum. Sen. Obama was the prime sponsor of Illinois legislation to establish instant runoff voting for primaries, while Sen. McCain recorded a phone announcement on behalf of instant runoff voting in Alaska.

Instant runoff voting's advantages over delayed runoffs include:

· Taxpayers would save time and money. Traditional runoffs are costly. Reducing the number of election days will allow administrators to spend their resources more efficiently.

· Candidates are less likely to be indebted to special-interest contributors. Right now, candidates often fight to make the runoff and then find their campaigns strapped for cash – a scramble that all too easily leads to ethical abuses.

· All votes will count, and the winner gets a majority. By combining multiple rounds of the runoff, IRV ensures maximum turnout in one decisive election. The recent drop-off in turnout in Louisiana's primary runoffs were the norm; of our last 110 federal primary runoffs, 107 have shown declines in turnout, on average by more than a third of the first-round vote.

· The campaign debate would improve. Because candidates know they may need second or third preferences, they will be less inclined to attack opponents unfairly.

· In general elections, instant runoff permits people to vote for third-party candidates without spoiling majority winners. In many of our elections, more than two candidates run and talk of spoilers is rampant – – including this year's presidential race, with consumer advocate Ralph Nader now running and former Georgia Congressman Bob Barr in the hunt for the Libertarian Party nomination. Accommodating voters having more choices with instant runoff voting will allow darkhorse candidates to raise important issues that mainstream candidates might want to avoid.

By eliminating costly runoffs, instant runoff voting would quickly pay for the one-time investment needed to update Louisiana voting equipment to be able to record voters' rankings. It's time for the Louisiana Legislature and governor to adopt instant runoff voting for state and federal elections and encourage its use in local elections.

Rob Richie is executive director of FairVote (www.fairvote.org), a nonprofit, non-partisan organization based in Maryland.