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Reports on Louisiana politics, government and the people shaping state policy

How Gov. Jeff Landry is proposing to ‘close’ Louisiana’s primaries

Gov. Jeff Landry waits outside of the House chamber to be announced during the first day of a special session on Monday, Jan. 15, 2024, in Baton Rouge, La.
Michael Johnson
Pool The Advocate
Gov. Jeff Landry waits outside of the House chamber to be announced during the first day of a special session on Monday, Jan. 15, 2024, in Baton Rouge, La.

Gov. Jeff Landry finally revealed his plans to transform Louisiana’s open primary elections into a more partisan-run process. They came Monday night at the close of the opening day of the legislature’s first special session of the year.

The proposal would give the leaders of the Republican Party of Louisiana and the Louisiana Democratic Party more control over who becomes a major candidate in federal, state and judicial elections. It’s contained in House Bill 17, sponsored by state Rep. Julie Emerson, R-Carencro.

Under the plan, Republican, Democratic, independent and other minor party candidates would no longer run against each other under Louisiana’s “jungle” primary election system.

Instead, Democratic and Republican candidates would be divided up into two separate election pools. It’s likely only registered GOP voters would be able to cast ballots in the GOP primary, while only registered Democratic voters would be able to cast ballots in a Democratic primary.

Independent and minor political party voters would not be able to participate in primary elections anymore, unless given permission by the leadership of either of the two major political parties.

In a speech to open the special session, Landry said he was pushing to close Louisiana’s primaries in order to mimic states that have been more economically successful.

“All of our fellow Southern states are succeeding,” Landry said. “They have a closed primary system.”

The governor’s statement was inaccurate.

Louisiana is the only state with a “jungle” primary system, but just eight other states in the country — and only Florida and Kentucky in the South — have closed primaries, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Most of Louisiana’s neighboring states — Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas — all have what’s called an open primary system.

Generally, with open primary elections, states don’t require voters to register with a party, and voters are able to choose which party primary they participate in with each election cycle. It allows voters to switch back and forth from Democrat and Republican primary contests if desired.

What Landry has proposed is different. It would be a closed or semi-closed party primary, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

In Landry’s proposed system, political parties could choose to restrict primaries to registered Republican and Democratic voters, respectively. The parties’ leadership could also allow voters not affiliated with a political party — often called independent voters — to participate in their contests.

Crossover voting, where registered Democrats vote in Republican primary contests and vice versa, would not be allowed.

Here are other highlights from Landry’s proposal:

It affects federal elections immediately and state government, judicial elections in 2025

If approved, Landry’s new primary system would go into effect as soon as he signs the bill for congressional elections this year.

The same changes would take place for statewide offices, the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, Public Service Commission, Louisiana Legislature and all state judge seats at the beginning of 2025.

The ‘jungle’ primary would remain in place for local elections

Landry isn’t proposing getting rid of the jungle primary completely. Local elected officials — including district attorneys, sheriffs, coroners, clerks of court, police jury members, city council members, city court judges and others — will still use the primary system in place now.

This means Louisiana will have two different primary systems in place, possibly for elections in the same cycle.

It will cost millions of dollars

There is expected to be a “significant” increase – in the millions of dollars – to the expense of elections annually, according to a recent nonpartisan fiscal analysis. Every additional statewide election in Louisiana costs about $8 million, and state officials expect at least one additional election would have to be held in 2025 and 2027.

Gov. Jeff Landry is pushing to allocate the secretary of state $5 million more in this fiscal year to deal with the partial implementation of the new primary system this year, but this doesn’t reflect the full cost of the new primary process.

It doesn’t account for the additional expenses associated with switching to primary elections for the state and judicial elections, which wouldn’t take place until 2027.

Louisiana would still be out of sync with most other states

Most states in the country do not use the restricted primary process Landry is proposing.

The National Conference of State Legislatures counts only 17 states that use closed or semi-closed primaries like the governor wants. Of those, only three — Florida, Kentucky and Maryland — are considered Southern.

Five of the eight states with completely closed primaries — Delaware, New Mexico, New York, Pennsylvania and Nevada — lean Democratic.

It moves up primary elections and candidate-qualifying by several months

Louisiana’s primary elections for state and congressional races, which typically take place in November, would be moved up by more than six months. Starting in 2025, those primary elections would take place in March instead.

In 2024, primary elections for congressional races would take place Aug. 18. The candidate qualifying period for those primaries, where people sign up to run, would take place from June 5-7.

Candidates could win office without ever getting the majority of the vote in an election

Unlike the partisan primaries Louisiana conducted 15 years ago, this new partisan primary process will not require candidates to win a majority of the votes in a primary to advance to the general election.

When Louisiana had partisan primaries for Congress in the 2000s, they required candidates to win a majority of the votes in either an initial party primary election or a party runoff before moving on to the general election.

Under Landry’s system, a candidate who won the most votes in the primary election — even if it was less than 50% — would automatically advance to the general election.

It would be very difficult for political parties that aren’t Democrat or Republican

Practically speaking, only the Democrat and Republican parties would be able to conduct primary elections under Landry’s proposal.

The legislation requires political parties reach a 5% threshold in registered voters in previous federal or state elections before they qualify to hold a party primary election. Currently, no party besides the Democrats or Republicans meets that standard.

Candidates unaffiliated with a political party would also be forced to collect signatures to run for election, but only signatures from registered voters who are also unaffiliated would qualify. They could not pay a fee to run for office, as candidates who are Republican or Democratic could.

The number of signatures required varies. For example, a candidate would need 5,000 signatures if they were running for a statewide office, with at least 500 signatures coming from each congressional district. To run for legislative office, they need 1,000 signatures.