Louisiana Experience Shows Top-Two Systems Make it Easier for Incumbents to be Re-Elected Than in a Normal Partisan Nomination System

Although the California press is filled with stories about California’s top-two election system, no newspaper story in California has discussed how the system has worked in Louisiana. This is peculiar, because Louisiana has had 30 years of experience with top-two in congressional elections, and 37 years of experience in state elections.

The most striking observation about Louisiana’s experience with top-two in congressional elections is how it seems to insulate incumbents from being defeated. In the 30 years before Louisiana used top-two for congressional elections, seven incumbents were defeated for re-election. For the period 1948 through 1976, here is the list:

1. In 1960, Harold B. McSween of the 8th district was defeated by Earl Long in the Democratic primary (however, Earl Long subsequently died, and the Democratic Party then chose McSween to fill the vacancy).
2. In 1962, Harold B. McSween of the 8th district was defeated by Gillis W. Long in the Democratic primary.
3. In 1964, Gillis W. Long of the 8th district was defeated by Speedy O. Long in the Democratic primary.
4. In 1966, James H. Morrison of the 6th district was defeated by John R. Rarick in the Democratic primary.
5. In 1968, Edwin E. Willis of the 3rd district was defeated by Patrick T. Caffery in the Democratic primary.
6. In 1974, John R. Rarick of the 6th district was defeated by Jeff LaCaze in the Democratic primary, and then Republican nominee W. Henson Moore won the general election.
7. In 1976, Otto Passman of the 5th district was defeated by Thomas Jerry Huckaby in the Democratic primary.

Then Louisiana switched to the top-two system for Congress, and used it for all elections 1978-2006. During all those 15 elections only once was an incumbent defeated for re-election. That was in 1980, when Claude “Buddy” Leach of the 4th district was defeated by Charles “Buddy” Roemer. This compilation does not include two districts in 1992, when two incumbents were forced to run against each other due to redistricting. Obviously, when that happens, it is impossible for an incumbent not to lose.

When Louisiana went back to a partisan nomination system for Congress starting in 2008, three incumbents were defeated:

1. In 2008, William Jefferson of the 2nd district was defeated in the general election by Republican nominee Joseph Cao.
2. In 2008, Don Cazayoux of the 6th district was defeated in the general election by Republican nominee William Cassidy.
3. In 2010, Joseph Cao of the 2nd district was defeated in the general election by Democratic nominee Cedric Richmond.

Washington state has used top-two in 2008 and 2010. No incumbent member of Congress from Washington lost in either of those elections. However, in the nation as a whole, many incumbents were defeated in those years: 28 in 2008, and 62 in 2010.

14 comments

  1. Trent Hill · · Reply

    In your last three examples–there were VERY extenuating circumstances. In the first, Jefferson was about to be convicted of a crime. In the second, Cazayoux lost around 10% of the Democratic base (can’t remember the exact number) because a former Democratic competitor chose to run as an independent. In the third, Cao was the man who replaced Jefferson–the convicted criminal–and he was facing insurmountable demographic odds.

  2. Nick Kruse · · Reply

    Is top-two the best way to run elections? No. But I do believe that, from a third party point of view, it is a better system than most states have. It basically creates a General Election part 1 and a General Election part 2. The way the General Election part 1 is set up makes it more likely for a third party to win than in the General Election of a “normal” state.

    In “normal” states, the general election might look like this: 1 Democrat, 1 Republican, 1 Libertarian, and 1 Green. Odds are the Democrat or Republican will win.

    In to-two states, the general election part 1 might look like this for a state-wide race: 10 Democrats, 10 Republicans, 1 Libertarian, and 1 Green. It would be much more likely for a third party to win than in the “normal” state situation. I am not saying the third party will always win here, but it is more likely than in the non-toptwo states.

  3. #2, you are pretty much alone in that belief. Is there any evidence from Louisiana or Washington to suggest that you might be right anyway?

  4. Richard Winger · · Reply

    #1, Jefferson’s character was exposed in May 2006, when the FBI raided either his home or his office (I don’t know which; maybe you can tell me) and found bundles of great amounts of cash in his freezer. But under top-two he still got re-elected a few months later.

    #2, there have been 60 top-two elections in which a minor party member ran, when there were at least two major party members running. Not once did the minor party member come anywhere close to placing first or second.

    And there have been 715 blanket primary elections with a minor party person running and there were 2 or more major party people running. Only twice did the minor party person place first or second.

  5. Trent Hill · · Reply

    It was his home.

  6. Nick Kruse · · Reply

    The fact that in 715 blanket primary elections only twice did a minor party move on to the next round of voting would probably be more of a fault of bad candidates/parties running or that the voters just aren’t interested in third parties. In my hypothetical example of 10 candidates from each major party and one from third parties, the 10 candidates from the same party should split the vote and cause another party to do better. My favorite system of elections would be instant runoff voting, but I do believe the top-two is better for third parties than the voting system in place in the majority of states.

  7. Richard Winger · · Reply

    #6, it is all a matter of timing. During the primary season voters don’t pay attention to anything but which major party member will advance. Later they start to pay attention to alternatives outside the major parties.

    In a blanket primary in California in 1999, Green Party member Audie Bock only got 8.5% in the first round, for the state legislature. She came in 3rd. But because it was a blanket primary, with far better rules, the top vote-getter from each party advanced. She won the election. But under top-two she wouldn’t have been allowed to run in the 2nd round.

    In Minnesota in September 1998, Jesse Ventura only got 3% in the open primary, but he won the general election with 37%. But under top-two he would have been off the November ballot. This is why Ventura, and Ralph Nader, and the ACLU of both southern and northern California came out against the blanket primary in California when it was on the ballot.

  8. Demo Rep · · Reply

    NO moron useless super-dangerous primaries are needed or wanted.

    LOTS of political timebombs in the U.S.A. and State constitutions and election laws due to EVIL monarch / oligarch party hacks.
    ——–
    P.R. and nonpartisan App.V.

  9. Jim Riley · · Reply

    1. In 1960, Harold B. McSween of the 8th district was defeated by Earl Long in the Democratic primary (however, Earl Long subsequently died, and the Democratic Party then chose McSween to fill the vacancy).
    2. In 1962, Harold B. McSween of the 8th district was defeated by Gillis W. Long in the Democratic primary.
    3. In 1964, Gillis W. Long of the 8th district was defeated by Speedy O. Long in the Democratic primary.

    George Long and Earl Long were brothers of Huey Long (Kingfish). George Long was the representative for the district who died in March 1958. Earl Long was governor at the time (his 3rd term), McSween was nominated. There was no special election.

    Earl Long could not run for re-election in 1959, but instead ran for representative in 1960, and defeated McSween in the primary, but then died. Gillis Long, a cousin then beat McSween in the 1962 primary.

    Gillis Long ran for governor in 1963, and was defeated by another cousin Speedy Long in 1964.

    Since there were rarely Republican opponents, these were really more like Top 2 elections with an added bonus of a large personnel element.

    4. In 1966, James H. Morrison of the 6th district was defeated by John R. Rarick in the Democratic primary.

    Morrison had been a representative since the 1940s, and was comparatively liberal, having supported the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This made him vulnerable to challenge in the primary from John Rarick, who in 1980 was the presidential nominee of the American Independent party. Morrison claimed that Rarick was a Ku Klux Klansman from Indiana. The voters apparently did not hold his Hoosier roots against him, and he narrowly won the runoff.

    Given their politics, this election was also similar to a Top 2 primary, than a partisan primary.

    6. In 1974, John R. Rarick of the 6th district was defeated by Jeff LaCaze in the Democratic primary, and then Republican nominee W. Henson Moore won the general election.

    Rarick by then was an embarrassment to the Democratic party, and they deliberately sought to defeat him. The result of the general election was disputed, and Moore was elected in a special election. This flipped the district to the Republicans.

    7. In 1976, Thomas Jerry Huckaby of the 5th district was defeated by Otto Passman in the Democratic primary.

    You have this backward. Passman was under suspicion of corruption. He rarely had any

    1. In 2008, William Jefferson of the 2nd district was defeated in the general election by Republican nominee Joseph Cao.

    William Jefferson was under indictment, and $100,000 in cold cash had been found in his freezer. Because Hurricane Gustav delayed the primary, the primary runoff was on the general election day in November, and the general election was in December. So Jefferson did not benefit of running with Obama in a heavily black district. This was a fluke.

    3. In 2010, Joseph Cao of the 2nd district was defeated in the general election by Democratic nominee Cedric Richmond.

    Cao received 33% of the vote in 2010, in an election in which twice the vote of 2008 was cast.

    2. In 2008, Don Cazayoux of the 6th district was defeated in the general election by Republican nominee William Cassidy.

    Cazayoux had won a special election earlier that year. A loser in the Democratic primary in the spring ran as an independent in the fall and peeled off about 10% of the vote.

    There may have been ballot fatigue since there were a primary and primary runoff for both parties in the spring special election. Cazayoux did not have a majority.

    So you’re attributing some magic to Democratic primaries that knocked off an occasional 10 or 15-term congressman, at a time when the Democratic primary was functionally equivalent to the Top 2 election.

    You are also using incumbents being defeated as a measure of the quality of an electoral system. This is not unlike measuring marriage by the divorce rate. Partisan primaries may be more subject to unstable results, since decisions are being made by a fragment or splinter of the electorate.

  10. Jim Riley · · Reply

    #3 Louisiana has among the strongest performance of independent candidates.

  11. Jim Riley · · Reply

    #4 The FBI raid was in May 2006, and there were many Blacks that believed that the charges were politically or racially motivated.

    Jefferson was not indicted until June 2007. He probably would have been re-elected in in 2008 if Hurricane Gustav had not delayed the election schedule. Jefferson won the Democratic runoff in November in part because of blacks turning out to vote for Obama. Turnout was way down for the Cao-Jefferson raise, and Cao was endorsed by Helena Moreno who lost the primary.

    Incidentally, Jefferson just started serving his sentence earlier this month.

  12. Jim Riley · · Reply

    #7 turnout for the 1999 special general was 29,400; down from the 1999 special primary which had 38,905.

    Four times as many voters voted in the 2000 general election, where Bock had twice as many votes, but barely over 20% of the vote.

    Bock’s election was a quirk.

  13. Richard Winger · · Reply

    Jim, thanks for pointing out that I had reversed the two names in the 1976 Louisiana example.

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