Many perspectives, 1 simple etiquette

Republican Bill Cassidy Wins La. Senate Race with Less Than 25% of Electorate

Created: 08 December, 2014
Updated: 15 October, 2022
6 min read
It was an election that didn't surprise anyone. Even before the votes were counted in Saturday's runoff election between Louisiana U.S. Senator 

Mary Landrieu (D) and Republican U.S. Representative Bill Cassidy, all indicators pointed to a landslide victory for Cassidy. The Republican kept a low profile leading up to the election and national Democrats backed out of the race completely.

A total of 1,273,429 registered voters (approximately 43% of the electorate) participated in the Senate runoff election to decide just how big the GOP's majority in Congress' upper chamber was going to be. Cassidy received 712,330 of those votes (approximately 56% of the total vote), meaning Landrieu only got 561,099 votes (44% of the total vote).

To put this in perspective, the total number of voters who participated in Saturday's runoff election was nearly 200,000 less than the number of voters who participated in the November election. Landrieu received 58,303 less votes than she did in November and there were a total of 8 names on the November ballot, 4 of whom were Democrats. In that election, she received the most votes, taking 42 percent of the total vote compared to the nearly 41 percent Cassidy took.

However, Louisiana has an electoral system known as a "Jungle Primary." Under this system, Louisiana conducts its first round of elections in November when other states conduct their general elections (second round). All candidates and voters participate on a single ballot and as long as a candidate meets the necessary qualifications to appear on the ballot, there is no limit on how many candidates can appear on the ballot nor a limit on how many candidates can appear from the same party.

If a candidate in a race receives over 50 percent of the vote, he or she is the winner and there is no second round of voting. However, if no candidate receives at least 50 percent plus one of the vote, a runoff election is held in December between the top two vote-getters. Since Landrieu was well shy of the threshold needed to avoid a runoff, she and Cassidy moved on to a runoff election on December 6.

While advocates of this system say all candidates appear on the ballot when the most people turnout for elections, making it an ideal system for a representative democracy, it does not guarantee that a majority of voters will decide who wins an election when the most voters participate. Runoff elections generally produce lower turnouts. It is the holiday season, whatever interest people had in politics subsides, and the media doesn't pay as much attention to the race.

According to CNN, when Landrieu went to vote on Saturday morning, there were only 4 cameras present compared to the roughly 50 that were present on November 4. A lack of interest by the public is going to produce a lower turnout, which means the winner is going to be selected by a lesser percentage of the total electorate (Cassidy won with less than a quarter of the total voting population in Louisiana).

Further, the Democratic Party essentially gave up on the race, which doesn't give voters affiliated with the party much of an incentive to participate. While Democrats no longer make up a majority of registered voters in the state, they still make up nearly half of the voting population and a clear plurality.

"When there are only two parties in a partisan system and one party abandons the election, there simply is no democracy," said Steve Peace, co-founder of the Independent Voter Project. "The Louisiana Jungle Primary funnels to a fundamentally undemocratic, post-November runoff, which is the antithesis of California and Washington's top-two systems which force election decisions to be made when the most people vote."

There is often some confusion over the differences between the nonpartisan systems in California and Washington state and the system in Louisiana, mostly because political commentators, analysts, and politicians have developed an unsavory habit of referring to them both as "jungle primaries" -- suggesting that they are the same.

"Even some academics who should know better have taken the bait," added Peace.

Under the top-two systems in California and Washington, all voters and candidates, regardless of political affiliation (or lack thereof), participate on a single primary ballot, but primary elections take place well ahead of November. As long as a candidate meets the necessary qualifications to appear on the primary ballot, there is no limit on how many candidates can appear on the ballot nor a limit on how many candidates can appear from each party (or non-party).

Regardless of how much of the vote the candidates get, the top two vote-getters in a race move on to the general election where historically a greater number of voters participate. This is why the November election in California cannot be simply called a runoff, as many also make the mistake of calling it. A candidate could get 99 percent of the vote in the primary and whoever garners the most of the remaining one percent moves on to the general election as well.

"California and Washington run primaries for the public purpose of narrowing the field to the two most competitive candidates, regardless of party, and then decide the election by majority vote in the November general election -- when the most people vote," Peace explains. "Louisiana's Jungle Primary system does the exact opposite. It is a taxpayer-funded primary designed for the private benefit of political parties. The only feature they share is that all candidates appear on a single ballot."

An added benefit of the top-two system is that it strengthens the overall voting power all voters have in each integral stage of the election process, especially in the general election. All voters have the opportunity to participate in the primary election and can select any candidate they want, regardless of party affiliation. Voters don't have to pick from a list of candidates from just one party as they would be forced to do under traditional partisan systems -- systems with an explicitly private purpose.

Further, in the November election (when voter turnout is higher), all voters have greater and equal voting power. By narrowing the field of candidates down to two, Voter A will always have a chance to cancel out the vote of Voter B, which means their votes carry equal weight.

In the Jungle Primary, as well as traditional partisan systems, major parties count on third-party and independent candidates to weaken individual voting power. If it is possible for Voter A and B to not cancel each other's votes out, the votes do not carry equal weight, and ultimately the more candidates that are on the general election ballot, the more an individual's voting power is diminished.

There is no guarantee that the outcome in the Louisiana U.S. Senate race under a top-two system would have been different. However, the Democratic Party would not have so willingly abandoned the race in a more competitive environment, which is what the top-two system creates. Further, no matter who won, the winner would have been chosen by a greater percentage of the voting population by garnering a majority of the vote in an election that produces a higher voter turnout and gives voters a stronger voice, ensuring greater representation.