How an unholy bipartisan alliance would disenfranchise many Black Louisianans
Gruber is senior vice president of Open Primaries, which advocates for allowing all voters to participate in primary elections. Hollis ran unsuccessfully as an independent for the Louisiana Senate in 2019.
An effort is gaining steam to close the primaries in Louisiana. This would be terrible for candidates and worse for voters. And it would be disastrous for African-Americans, more than 200,000 of whom are registered to vote as independents in the state.
The Louisiana Constitution adopted back in 1898 included complicated registration procedures, strict property ownership requirements for voters and a poll tax — all targeted at disenfranchising the Black people who had just gained the franchise under the 14th and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. As a result, Black registered voters in the state all but disappeared, plummeting from 130,000 before the change to just 1,000 by 1904. And the numbers remained tiny until the state Constitution was revised almost seven decades later.
That stain on the state's history continues to find new modes of expression, and is on full display in the Republican and Democratic parties' creation of a task force to study whether to keep independents and members of minor parties from voting in future primaries — which are the de facto general election in many of the state's races.
It's an unusually bipartisan unholy alliance. For Louisiana Republicans, it is their contribution to the effort by activist supporters of former President Donald Trump across the country who are battling for the soul of the party. They see restrictive election laws as a way of consolidating their power, and their outrage at GOP Sen. Bill Cassidy's vote of conscience to convict Trump in his second impeachment trial is just the excuse they need to bully more moderate members.
For Democrats, Louisiana is one of the last states in the South where they hold a registration advantage, though voting patterns have already favored the GOP for some time. Democrats see an opportunity to take advantage of the politics of the day and rebuild a base that is bleeding members.
The effect, however, would be disastrous for Black voters. Why? Because Louisiana is the only state in the South with a nonpartisan open and "jungle" primary system, where all registered voters get to participate in the taxpayer-funded primary and candidates of all stripes appear on a single ballot for each office. If one of them gets a majority in the first round, which is held in the fall, the election is over. Otherwise the top-two finishers compete in a runoff, held after Election Day everywhere else in the country.
If this task force is successful, more than 800,000 registered independents and third-party members — a quarter of them Black — would be disenfranchised in the congressional, state and local primaries the same way they are now in Louisiana's presidential primaries. Closed primaries may be taxpayer funded, but only Democrats or Republicans are allowed to vote in them. Such a change would be the largest act of voter disenfranchisement in the state in decades.
Primaries matter. Especially in Louisiana, which has some of the least competitive general elections in the country. In the last elections for the Legislature, in 2019, fully 78 percent of the House seats and 87 percent of the Senate seats were filled in the first round. One candidate got most of the votes, so no runoff general election was needed.
Three-dozen states have some form of open primary. And four — Alaska, California, Nebraska and Washington — have dispensed with partisan primaries altogether and permit all voters to vote in a single nonpartisan primary in the spring.
One result: These states are seeing significant gains in voter participation and legislative productivity and a decline in partisanship.
But leaders of Louisiana's two major parties aren't interested in debating reasonable ways to improve the current system — even though a majority of the state's local election administrators voted to oppose closed primaries. No matter. In supporting the switch, state GOP Chairman Louis Gurvich has gone out of his way to describe real and imagined problems with the status quo and then equate "reform" with less democracy.
It's not hard to understand the underlying motives on both sides. Our country is undergoing a significant shift in voter affiliation. Half nationwide identify as independents, voters who are are harder to predict and tougher for the parties to control, and the ranks of Louisianans registered as independent is projected to rise from 27 percent to 34 percent in a few years. Many of them will be African-American. Do Black voters only matter if they are Republicans or Democrats?
There have been moves across the South recently to try to close primaries and consolidate the partisan duopoly's control. Legislatures in Missouri, South Carolina and Tennessee have all debated such legislation. Georgia officials appear poised to follow Louisiana's shameful lead with their own task force, which has gained momentum since Black and independent voters combined to deliver both the state's Senate seats to the Democrats in January.
Such efforts stand in stark contrast to work being done nationally to make voting more accessible, especially for people of color. If the members of Louisiana's task force were really interested in reform, they would have launched an effort to make elections more open, fair and accessible. Not less.
The leaders of the Closed Party Primary Task Force need to be held to account. Shutting out 200,000 Black voters is not reform. Shutting out 800,000 independent and other party voters is not reform. Closing Louisiana's primaries is not reform. It's a cynical exercise in election manipulation and voter suppression, pure and simple.
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