Two years ago, the League of Women Voters of New Orleans conducted an extensive study of the city's municipal and parochial election dates and their impact on voter turnout. Since 1982, New Orleans has held its citywide elections in February and March — right in the middle of Carnival season. The run-up to Election Day forces candidates to compete for voters' attention with our city's chock-full social and religious holiday schedule as well as the New Orleans Saints and Pelicans' seasons. The study — titled "Celebrate or Vote ... Does the calendar affect voting in Orleans Parish?" — concluded that "the current election cycle causes unnecessary obstacles and inconvenience in staging elections." That's an understatement.
The distractions posed by Carnival, college and professional sporting events and the holidays are not just a problem on Election Day itself. Voter registration drives have to conclude 30 days before each election, which puts an added strain on such efforts during the holiday season. Everywhere else in Louisiana — indeed, pretty much everywhere else in America — major elections are held in the fall. It used to be that way in New Orleans, too. The state law governing local election dates was changed after the 1977 mayoral race at the behest of then-Mayor Dutch Morial, who complained of the long (six-month) transition period. The late mayor had a legitimate gripe about his lengthy transition period, but the answer should have been moving the mayor and the City Council's inauguration dates forward, not pushing back the election date.
State lawmakers now have an opportunity to correct that mistake once and for all. Senate Bill 191 by state Sen. J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans, would put New Orleans' municipal and parochial elections back on the "fall schedule" — in October and November — starting in 2015. The change would align our elections with the state's election calendar, restore some sanity to the local electoral process and save the city money. (When local elections are held on state-sponsored election dates, the state picks up more than half the tab.)
The change proposed by Morrell's bill would not affect the upcoming citywide elections, which are only nine months away. Qualifying for municipal and parochial offices in New Orleans is less than eight months away. Nor would Morrell's bill affect the next inauguration date for the current mayor and City Council, if any of them are re-elected next year, or for their immediate successors in 2018. Instead, the bill would move up the inauguration date to the third Monday in January starting in the year 2022. That would put every mayor and council member into office just before the earliest possible date for Mardi Gras, starting in 2022. More important, it would remove a potential abuse that has been the scourge of all incoming mayors in recent times: the temptation for an outgoing administration to overspend in the first four months of its last budget year, leaving the new mayor and council drastically short of cash as they take office.
SB 191 won unanimous approval in the Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee last week, but that's just the first step in a long process. The League of Women Voters has vetted this issue thoroughly and deserves credit for pushing it this far. We hope local lawmakers see this needed reform through to the end.