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  • Writer's pictureStaff @ LPR

NOLA.com: Louisiana Republicans again try eliminating 'jungle primary' for legislative, statewide races

Allies of Gov. Jeff Landry are again trying to sunset Louisiana's unique "jungle primary" system for a slate of elections — a priority of the state Republican Party and a rare source of political defeat for Landry since he took office.

In January's special session of the state Legislature, Landry, a Republican, tried to implement closed primaries — where Democrats and Republicans vote separately for their nominees — for all except local elections. The state Senate balked and removed state legislative and some statewide races from the list of closed elections. Ultimately, only federal races and those for the Public Service Commission and the state's top school board were included in the bill that became law.

Now a bill filed for the regular session that began Monday would add statewide and legislative races back to the docket of contests with party primaries. The measure, sponsored by Rep. Julie Emerson, R-Carencro, would go into effect in 2026, the same time as the legislation approved in January. 

Emerson, who carried Landry's favored closed-primary bill in the January special session, did not return a call for comment. Landry's longtime political advisor, Brent Littlefield, referred questions about the bill to Emerson. Landry didn't mention the issue as a priority in the speech he delivered at the start of the regular session on Monday. 

The legislation could face obstacles that also appeared in January — namely, lawmakers' interest in preserving the system that got them elected. Senate President Cameron Henry, R-Metairie, said in an interview Monday that he's giving Emerson's bill "the benefit of the doubt," but that members' opinions on closed primaries haven't changed much since January.

"Members were pretty specific for the special session of where they wanted those bills, where that sweet spot was with who was going to be included (and) not included," Henry said.

House Speaker Phillip DeVillier, R-Eunice, did not respond to an interview request.

Louisiana's current "jungle primary" system lets all registered voters cast ballots in a single primary election for each political office. The two top vote-getters advance from the primary to the general election regardless of their political party, unless one candidate gets more than half the vote. In that case, they win the election outright and no runoff election occurs. That was how Landry claimed victory in his gubernatorial race. He secured over 51% of the vote in October's primary election, besting Democrat Shawn Wilson's 26%.

GOP strategists and lawmakers favor closed primaries as a way to strengthen the party's hand in elections and give voters affiliated with the Democrat and Republican parties a more direct say in picking their nominees. Good-government groups and some lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle warn that abandoning the old way would confuse voters and inflame partisanship.

Under draft legislation considered in January's special session, Louisiana's roughly 800,000 voters unaffiliated with the Democratic or Republican parties would have been barred from voting in primaries for federal, statewide, legislative and judicial elections unless those parties chose to let them participate. The change would have taken effect as soon as this fall. 

However, after negotiations involving U.S. Sen. John Kennedy, R-Madisonville, lawmakers and Landry agreed to let voters registered under "no party" participate in primaries of their choice.

The Senate also pared back which elections would feature closed primaries, leaving just federal races and those for the Public Service Commission and Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

That outcome was a small setback in an otherwise triumphant first two months in office for Landry. The governor succeeded last month in passing a slew of tough-on-crime bills that will make Louisiana's justice system stricter and revive capital punishment.

Steven Procopio, head of the Public Affairs Research Council, a Baton Rouge-based good government group, said Monday that no new evidence has emerged since January to support moving to the closed primary system for more elections.

"I don’t think the case was ever made as to why Louisiana should have closed primaries," Procopio said. "I understand how it would be good for political party organizations, but what is the benefit for citizens? This move will offer less choice for more confusion and more cost."


Staff writer Meghan Friedmann contributed to this report.

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