A closer look at Louisiana’s unique electoral system

In Louisiana, the candidate qualifying period opens on July 22 and closes on July 24. With the filing period upon us, the time is ripe for examining Louisiana’s one-of-a-kind system in greater depth, and for introducing Ballotpedia’s preferred term for the system: Louisiana majority-vote system.

How do elections work in Louisiana?

Louisiana’s electoral system for local, state, and federal offices differs markedly from those used in the other 49 states. In Louisiana, all candidates running for a local, state, or federal office appear on the same ballot in either October (in odd-numbered years) or November (in even-numbered years), regardless of their partisan affiliations. If a candidate wins a simple majority of all votes cast for the office being sought (i.e., 50 percent, plus one vote), he or she wins the election outright. If no candidate meets that threshold, the top two finishers, regardless of their partisan affiliations, advance to a second election in December. In that election, the candidate who receives the greatest number of votes wins.

What terms are used to describe this system?

The general public commonly refers to this electoral system as a “jungle primary.” But that term presents two problems. First, it has negative connotations. In this context, the adjectival use of “jungle” suggests disorderliness and chaos. Its use infers a negative judgment against the electoral system. Second, the term lacks descriptive force. It does little to explain the substance or function of the system it is used to describe.

Louisiana’s secretary of state describes the state’s electoral system as a “majority-vote primary paired with a plurality-vote general election:”

  • “All statewide and local candidates in Louisiana are elected by majority vote. A majority vote is one more than 50% of the total votes cast for that office. When one candidate is to be elected, a candidate who receives a majority of the votes cast for an office in a primary election is elected. If no candidate receives a majority, the top two candidates who receive the most votes advance to the general election.”
  • “The candidate who receives the most votes cast for an office in a general election is elected. If two or more offices are to be filled, those candidates receiving the highest total of votes are elected to the number of offices to be filled. If there is a tie vote among more candidates than offices to be filled, all candidates who received the highest number of tie votes advance to another election to be held on the 3rd Saturday after the promulgation of the election results.”

The term “majority-vote primary” is an improvement over “jungle primary.” It is neutral, and it more accurately describes how the system works. Still, this term is misleading because it uses the term “primary,” which is most precisely construed as an election used either to narrow the field of candidates for a given office or to determine the nominees for political parties in advance of a general election. Under this definition, a candidate cannot win election to an office outright in a primary. A candidate can only win an office in a general election. However, this is not the case in Louisiana. A candidate can win election outright in the first round of voting.

“Plurality-vote general election” does not clearly communicate the possibility of outright election in the first phase of the process (i.e., the November election). As such, it is misleading. Further, in most cases, the vote threshold for this election is effectively a simple majority (i.e, if only two candidates can advance to the general election, one of those candidates is practically guaranteed a majority share of the total vote).

How does Ballotpedia describe Louisiana’s electoral system?

In response to the shortcomings of the aforementioned existing terms, we call Louisiana’s electoral system the “Louisiana majority-vote system.”

This term hews closely to the terms presently used by the Louisiana secretary of state. However, it doesn’t use the misleading “primary” and “general” descriptors. Instead, it encompasses both phases of the process without obscuring the possibility of election in the first phase.

We can expand this term to accurately distinguish between the two phases of an election, as follows:

  • Louisiana majority-vote system, first round: This describes what has traditionally been referred to as the “jungle primary.”
  • Louisiana majority-vote system, second round: This describes what has traditionally been referred to as the “general,” “general runoff,” or “runoff” election.

For a more complete discussion of Louisiana’s electoral system and related, but distinct, concepts (e.g., top-two primaries and blanket primaries), see this article.

Absentee/mail-in voting modifications

Since our July 1 edition, we’ve tracked the following absentee/mail-in voting modifications:

  • Alabama: On July 2, the U.S. Supreme Court temporarily stayed a district court order barring Alabama election officials from enforcing witness and photo ID requirements for select voters casting absentee ballots in the July 14 runoff elections. A full appeal of the district court’s decision is pending before the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.
  • Arkansas: On July 2, Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) and Secretary of State John Thurston (R) announced that voters in the Nov. 3 general election would be allowed to cite concerns over COVID-19 as a valid excuse for voting absentee.
  • Delaware: On July 1, Gov. John Carney (D) signed HB346 into law, providing for the state election commission to automatically deliver a vote-by-mail application to every qualified voter in the 2020 primary, general, and special elections.
  • Maryland: On July 8, Gov. Larry Hogan (R) ordered the state board of elections to automatically send absentee/mail-in ballot request forms to all qualified voters in the Nov. 3 general election.
  • Massachusetts: On July 6, Gov. Charlie Baker (R) signed into law legislation extending vote-by-mail eligibility in the fall primary and general elections to all qualified voters.
  • South Carolina: On July 8, the South Carolina Election Commission announced that return postage for all mailed absentee ballots in the Nov. 3 general election would be prepaid.

To date, 35 states have modified their absentee/mail-in voting procedures. These modifications can be divided into five broad categories:

  • Automatic mail-in ballots: Four states (California, Montana, Nevada, and New Jersey) have opted to automatically send mail-in ballots to all eligible voters in certain elections to ensure that most voting takes place by mail. These states are shaded in yellow in the map below.
  • Automatic mail-in ballot applications: Sixteen states (Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Maryland, Michigan, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Dakota, West Virginia, and Wisconsin) have opted to automatically send mail-in ballot applications to all eligible voters in certain elections. These states are shaded in dark blue in the map below.
  • Eligibility expansions: Ten states (Arkansas, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Missouri, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia) have expanded absentee voting eligibility in certain elections. These states are shaded in light blue in the map below.
  • Deadline extensions: Four states (Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Utah) have opted to extend absentee/mail-in ballot request or submission deadlines in certain elections. These states are shaded in dark gray in the map below.
  • Other process changes: One state ( North Carolina) has made other modifications to its absentee/mail-in ballot procedures in certain elections. This state is shaded in gray in the map below.
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Litigation tracking

To date, we have tracked 131 lawsuits and/or court orders involving election policy issues and the COVID-19 outbreak. In each issue of The Ballot Bulletin, we shine a spotlight on what we consider one of the more interesting recent events in this area. Click here to view the complete list of lawsuits and court orders.

This week, we turn our attention to a case out of Alabama, Merrill v. People First of Alabama.

  • Case name: Merrill v. People First of Alabama
  • Case number: 19A1063 (district court case number: 2:20-cv-00619; appellate court case number: 20-12184)
  • State of origin: Alabama
  • Court: U.S. Supreme Court
  • Summary: On July 2, the U.S. Supreme Court temporarily stayed a district court order barring Alabama election officials from enforcing witness and photo ID requirements for select voters casting absentee ballots in the July 14 runoff elections. A full appeal of the district court’s decision is pending before the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. The Supreme Court’s order was unsigned. However, it was noted that Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan voted to deny the state’s request to lift the district court’s injunction.
  • Court documents:

Legislation tracking

To date, we have tracked 255 bills that make some mention of both election policy and COVID-19. States with higher numbers of relevant bills are shaded in darker blue on the map below. States with lower numbers of relevant bills are shaded in lighter blue. In states

shaded in white, we have tracked no relevant bills.

Legislation related to elections and COVID-19, 2020

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About the author

Jerrick Adams

Jerrick Adams is a staff writer at Ballotpedia. Contact us at editor@ballotpedia.org.

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