Roll Call

Blanket primary has other solutions, and it's not Louisiana's
by Steven Hill
July 24, 2000

As we consider improvements to Congress, we also have to examine the process by which public officials are sent to Washington. Recently, the Supreme Court tossed out the blanket primary, a citizen-based initiative designed to give voters more and better choices. Now the states of California, Washington and Alaska are scrambling to devise a primary election system 
that fulfills the voters' wishes and complies with the Supreme Court ruling. 

This has led some to propose a unique, non-partisan primary system used in Louisiana in a desire to open up the political process to a wider range of voters, many of them independents (the fastest growing affiliation of voters) who say they are tired of the two-party stranglehold on politics.  They want more and better electoral choices. 

So what now can be done, given the political minefield that has been created?  The Supreme Court has indicated that some version of a Louisiana-type of nonpartisan blanket primary may be more acceptable to their way of thinking. In Louisiana, voters can choose any candidate and the top two vote-getters, regardless of party affiliation, move on to the general election. In California, already plans are underway to qualify a Louisiana-style primary for the ballot. 

In practice, Louisiana's version of a blanket primary is hardly a paragon of democracy. Often the top two candidates get to the general election with a low percentage of votes. This tends to favor non-moderate candidates with the strongest core support, and in 1991 produced the specter of David Duke as the Republican candidate for governor. 

The 1995 governor' race was another example, with the top two finishers being the most conservative Republican (who had inherited David Duke's constituency), and the most liberal Democrat. This lack of moderation is the exact opposite of one of the goals of blanket primary proponents like California Congressman Tom Campbell. 

Furthermore, a Louisiana-style primary would be catastrophic for voters wanting more choice. Some congressional races in Louisiana haveresulted in both primary winners being from the same political party. Since only the top two finishers in the primary advance to the general election, third parties would hardly ever appear on the general election ballot for federal and state elections, actually reducing electoral choices for voters. 

For those who like the moderating influence of a blanket primary, a better solution would be for political parties to require that their candidate win their primary with a majority of the vote. Many southern states already use a primary runoff if no candidate wins a majority of the vote in the primary. 

But runoffs suffer the defect of requiring voters to trek out to the polls another time, and of asking candidates to raise more money for the second election.  A better solution is to use something like "instant runoffs."  With an instant runoff, voters rank candidates to indicate their first choice as well as their runoff choices ahead of time. Ballots are counted like a series of runoffs, and the final result is that in one election you elect a winner who has the support of a majority of voters. 

Instant runoffs could be used by parties in their primaries, as well as in the general election to elect a final winner with majority support. Or, if all parties agree, the instant runoff could be used in the general election in such a way that primaries aren't even necessary. That should be attractive to those who would like to get it all over in one election, short and sweet.  Legislation for instant runoffs has been introduced in five states and passed in two localities. London uses it to elect its mayor, and the Australians and Irish have used it for decades in their national elections. 

But to really give voters the full range of choices they are clamoring for, it is necessary to change our "winner take all" election methods. The best solution is some sort of proportional representation voting system, or cumulative voting in three-seat districts which Illinois used to elect its state legislature for many years. This reform would create a true multi-party democracy, giving voters the multiplicity of viable candidates they are seeking through blanket primaries and term limits. 

Voters are telling us, loudly and clearly, that they want more and better electoral choices. We must continue trying new approaches that will be ruled constitutional by the courts. But the Louisiana system is definitely the wrong fork in the road to stumble down. 

Steven Hill is western regional director of the Center for Voting and Democracy.  He is co-author of "Reflecting All of Us" (Beacon Press 1999). For more information, see or write to: PO Box 22411, San Francisco, CA 94122.  Phone: (415) 665-5044