Louisiana's Cajun Primary: An Innovative Primary Undone by Electoral Stagnation

by Chris Hughes // Published November 20, 2015

Louisiana's open primary system is designed to give more voters an opportunity to participate in competitive elections. The first round of their one-of-a-kind “Cajun Primary” was held on  Saturday, October 24th, for the two chambers of its state legislature, Governor and other statewide offices. While the first round election is called a “primary,” it's in fact a general election that can be won if  a candidate earns an absolute majority of the vote. Nearly every race in Louisiana’s legislature was actually decided on (or before) the 24th thanks to uncontested races and winner-take-all voting rules that put the power of elections in the hands of the parties, not the voters.

Of the 144 seats in the Louisiana legislature, only 18 remain to be filled in a runoff election. Fourteen of those involve a runoff election in which two members of the same party will face off, with only four "classic" legislative runoffs between a Democrat and  a Republican. Even considering just the seats that were contested in October, Louisiana experienced astonishingly non-competitive races for most state representative seats. This is due in large part to the high number of incumbents running for re-election without meaningful competition, and the fundamental flaws of single-winner districts.

By law, in federal election years, the first round of the election takes place on the federally mandated Election Day in November. That makes Louisiana the only state that effectively does not hold a primary election for Congressional contests, but instead has a contingent runoff election in December, akin to the nonpartisan general runoffs common in municipal elections in many states. In odd-numbered years for state office, the election also consists of a general election content in October and a November runoff if needed to ensure a majority outcome.

The "Cajun Primary" as an Open General Election

Louisiana's unique approach to elections should afford voters more choice and competitive elections for state legislature. The Cajun primary is really an open general election where all candidates, no matter their party, compete for a seat. If any person gets more than 50% of the vote in the primary, they win outright. If no person wins 50% of the vote in the primary, then the top two vote-getters proceed to a runoff election, where a winner will be decided.

Louisiana’s current runoff system is also encouraging vitriolic rhetoric from its two gubernatorial candidates. Both David Vitter and John Bel Edwards are flinging insults and ripostes left and right, bringing up past scandals and political sticking points to undermine the other and ensure their own victory on Saturday.

Here are more specifics of who has already won and how elections are likely to proceed later this month:

Supermajority of Legislature Decided in First Round of Election

Table 1: 2015 Louisiana Elections

Let’s start by taking a look at the Louisiana Senate, composed of 39 seats. Before the first round of elections, 21 of those seats had already been effectively decided thanks to a simple lack of competition: no challengers presented themselves for more than half of the seats composing the Louisiana Senate (Table 1). For example, John Alario (R-8), who ran unopposed for his third election in a row this year – even after the FBI opened a probe into his use of campaign funds (for, among other things, leasing a BMW and buying tickets to LSU Football games).

Nearly the entire Senate was elected in the first round. Of the 18 seats actually contested in the Senate, 14 were filled by day’s end and only four were headed to a runoff. Of those 14 filled, nine were decided in landslide elections and a grand total of zero were truly competitive (decided by less than 5% of the vote).

This means that the Republicans have already secured a majority in the Louisiana Senate, even though Louisiana’s official “Election Day” won’t be until November 21. Democrats secured 13 seats for themselves, ensuring their minority status in Baton Rouge for another four years. The runoffs will not change the partisan outcome much: two of the four contests going to a runoff are between members of the same party. In other words, Louisianans have the chance to choose between parties in a total of two elections out of 39 for their Senate in November.

Table 2: Partisan Breakdown of Seats Already Won

Just as in the Senate, more than half of the seats for the House were uncontested and decided before the October election. Representatives like Truck Gisclair (D-54) and Major Thibaut (D-18) were re-elected to what will be their final terms in the House (due to Louisiana’s term limit law) without any competition, allowing them to ride off into the sunset no matter what happens in their final terms.

Of the 52 seats contested in the first round, 30 were contested only by members of the same party (14 seats between Republicans and 16 between Democrats). Of the 22 seats where voters could actually choose between parties, a grand total of two led to a runoff between a Republican and a Democrat. Just as in the Senate, the parties have already settled into comfortable majorities and minorities, with Republicans taking 56 seats, Democrats 33, and an independent and a third party candidate grabbing one apiece.

In those instances where multi-party races did not result in an outright winner in the first round, they transformed into Republican- or Democrat-only runoffs. We can see, then, that Republicans and Democrats have already won 60 and 41 of the seats in the House, respectively, leaving just two house seats up for grabs in contests between the major parties.

Table 3: Comparison of Competition, 2011 v. 2015

This lack of competition is even worse than the 2011 elections in Louisiana (Table 3), which boasted 62 uncontested elections across the legislature, 40 elections contested by a single party, and a grand total of 25 runoff elections. Compare that with 2015’s 74 uncontested elections, 35 elections contested by a single party, and 18 total runoff elections and you’ll see a widening gap in competition for legislative seats. Even fewer Louisianans got to express a preference for their state representative this cycle compared to last, and only 18 districts were competitive enough to trigger a runoff.

Incumbents Welcomed Back with Open Arms

Table 4:  Incumbent Election Statistics

Incumbents had a great primary too, enjoying a perfect record in the Senate. Of the 28 who ran for their seats, all 28 managed to secure those seats in the first round (Table 4). None had to campaign in November. House races were only slightly less kind to incumbents: 83 ran, 73 won outright, seven are being sent to a runoff to fight for their seats, and three lost in the first round. Two of those who lost in the first round lost to members of their own party. The majority of incumbents who ran were not even challenged by other candidates, and when they were challenged nearly all won handily.

Ranked Choice Voting: A Better Way Forward

What can be done to remedy this electoral stagnation in the Bayou State? Louisiana’s best option is to eliminate its winner-take-all system, and replace it with a multi-winner system using ranked choice voting. By combining single-winner districts into multi-winner districts electing three, four, or five representatives at once, and electing those representatives using ranked choice voting, this problem could be eliminated entirely. Districts currently represented only by Republicans or Democrats would be combined into multi-winner districts, in which the formerly voiceless Republicans or Democrats could elect representatives who reflect their views.[1]

Louisiana could further promote the goals of majoritarian outcomes with real voter choice if it consolidated both elections with the use of ranked choice voting. Many cities have gone from two elections to one with ranked choice voting, and their elections this year highlighted how well that system works. Ranked choice voting systems also discourage the sort of scorched-earth campaigning seen in the gubernatorial race, instead encouraging candidates to find a broad base of support and to avoid alienating their opponent’s supporters.

Implementing ranked choice voting would be especially easy for the state given that they already use it – but only for overseas and military voters and out-of-state military voters. These voters do not have the opportunity to receive and mail back a second ballot for the runoff, so they compete in both elections at once with a single ranked ballot.

More incrementally, Louisiana could keep single-winner districts, but end its use of a two-round election system and instead adopt just ranked choice voting. That way, round-by-round elections could be done instantly, and voters would only need to show up to the polls once. Given that Louisiana already uses ranked choice ballots for its overseas and military voters, the transition would not be difficult. Although doing so would not break up the partisan lock on safe districts in the way a multi-winner RCV system would, it would empower Louisiana voters by allowing them to vote in a single, efficient, high turnout election, and be confident that election results will be grounded in majority rule.

[1] For example, the 105-seat House of Representatives could consist of 21 five-member districts where candidates would only need 17% of the vote to guarantee themselves a seat in the legislature. Those 21 five-member districts would be created by combining the already existing districts in groups of five, keeping districts grouped by city, parish, or both. This way you could combine a number of districts comprising New Orleans, such as districts 103, 105, 102, 85, and 84, which currently elect four Republicans and one Democrat to the House, and create an entirely new coalition of representatives from that one New Orleans-based district. District 102 had a diverse Democratic race, with six different Democratic candidates; 103 had a close race between two Republicans and two Democrats; 105 had a landslide win for a Republican incumbent, and 84 and 85 feature incumbent Republicans who ran without opposition. Combining these districts would 1) challenge the incumbents in 84 and 85; 2) create more opportunities for the Democrats in district 102, 103, and 105 to gain representation and 3) create a district representing a more diverse set of interests from the southern and western sides of New Orleans.