November 2022

Louisiana's Long-Term Election Experiment: How Eliminating Partisan Primaries Improved Governance and Reduced Polarization

Louisiana has one of the most unique electoral systems in the country. The state effectively has no primary elections — allowing all candidates to compete in a general election, open to all voters. Additionally, in contrast to recent alternative reform models passing in cities and states across the U.S., Louisiana's system affords researchers a unique benefit: time. 

On the heels of another dangerously uncompetitive midterm election year, partisan primaries are increasingly cited as a key driver of political polarization and gridlock. What can researchers and electoral reform advocates learn about the effects of getting rid of primaries altogether, which Louisiana achieved nearly half a century ago? 

In a new report published by the Unite America Institute, Democracy Fellow Dr. Richard Barton focuses the answer on three outcome categories: participation, polarization in state legislatures and Congress, and governance. 

Through an analysis of turnout data, widely cited measures of political polarization, metrics on state performance, and case studies, he finds considerable evidence that the elimination of partisan primaries has: 

  • Increased meaningful participation in elections: In 2020, 60% of the state’s voting eligible population cast a meaningful vote to elect their U.S. Representative — in which the candidates had to compete for broad support rather than rely on the entrenched partisanship of voters — which is much higher than other states; 
  • Mitigated ideological and partisan polarization: Louisiana’s state legislature is routinely ranked second-or third-least polarized in the nation, and congressional elections are also less ideologically extreme than the national average;
  • Improved the quality of governance: Louisiana’s governing outcomes outperform similar states — especially in the two policy areas in which state governments spend the most money (health and education). 

Louisiana’s election model is not a panacea for pre-existing political problems and social ills, nor is it without limitations or room for improvement. However, the performance of the state government is impressive (especially compared to neighboring southern states) given the political and societal obstacles embedded in the region’s history. 

This report gives researchers, policy makers, and reformers another model of elections to consider at a time when political dysfunction requires new experimentation and innovation. 


Other research