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Alan Pell Crawford
Alan Pell Crawford

Alan Pell Crawford is the author, most recently, of Twilight at Monticello: The Final Years of Thomas Jefferson, a Book of the Month Club selection and Washington Post Best Seller. A journalist and political analyst, a former U.S. Senate speechwriter and congressional press secretary, Crawford is also an accomplished public speaker and has addressed audiences throughout the United States.

Ragin’ ‘Cajun Primary’

Alan Pell Crawford

Preoccupied by John Roberts’ vote on the Affordable Care Act, Republicans probably missed something else the Chief Justice has done they won’t like: He has granted ex-Rep. William Jefferson a one-month extension to file an appeal of his 2009 conviction on bribery and money-laundering charges. Jefferson is the New Orleans politician in whose well-stocked freezer FBI agents found $90,000 in marked bills. Since May, he’s been serving a 13-year prison sentence.

Jefferson’s name should come to mind whenever well-meaning reformers talk up the virtues of “top two” primary systems. California, with great fanfare, has joined Washington and Louisiana in adopting these reforms, which put all candidates—regardless of party—on the primary ballot.  (Some observers erroneously consider Nebraska a top-two state, which for reasons too complicated to go into here is not the case.)

That way, the two candidates with the most votes—again, regardless of party—run against each other in November. This is a great improvement, the syndicated columnist Froma Harrop writes, because it makes it harder for “hot heads” to win. Centrists love it because they think it discourages what Harrop regards as “extremists,” though there is mounting evidence that it really doesn’t.

It certainly favors incumbents. For 30 years, starting in 1978, Louisiana used the top-two system for congressional elections, which is why it is often called the Cajun Primary. From 1960 to 1976, when the orthodox system was in place, seven incumbent congressmen from Louisiana were defeated.

From 1978 to 2006, however, when the new system was used, only one incumbent lost, not counting two districts where redistricting pitted two incumbents against one another. When Louisiana switched back, two incumbents lost in 2008 and another was defeated in 2010. But now the legislature has gone back to top-two approach.

Jefferson, first elected to Congress in 1990, was re-elected for the seventh time in 2006—after his FBI raid brought his chicanery to public attention and when Louisiana was operating under the top-two system.

In 2008, however, when the old system was again in place, Jefferson was narrowly defeated. But had the top-two plan been in operation, he would have won. That’s because Malik Rahim, a prominent African-American activist who got 2.82 percent of the vote running as the Green Party candidate, wouldn’t have been on the ballot at all.

The top-two system, whatever virtues supporters might claim, exaggerates the benefits of name recognition in primaries and keeps new and independent parties off the ballot in the general election.

Put differently, it’s another mechanism for protecting incumbents.


Sources: Froma Harrop, “California’s top-two primary experience cools party ‘hotheads,’” Seattle Times, June 9, 2012; Bruce Alpert, “Ex.-Rep. William Jefferson given one-month extension to file Supreme Court appeal,” New Orleans Times-Picayune, June 25, 2012.