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Our Day of Infamy

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When Franklin D. Roosevelt predicted that Dec. 7th would be "a date which will live in infamy," the president was talking about the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor that plunged the nation into World War II -- not some Louisiana election.

This year, national attention focused on a bitterly divisive runoff for the U.S. Senate that pitted two New Orleanians against each other on Dec. 7: Democratic incumbent Mary Landrieu and Republican challenger Suzanne Haik Terrell. (This edition of Gambit Weekly went to press before the outcome was known.) In addition, voters in the Fifth Congressional District chose between two candidates to replace outgoing Rep. John Cooksey.

The rest of the nation elected their congressional delegations on Nov. 5. Louisiana was the only state in the country to hold federal runoff elections in December. The exercise cost the state $3.6 million. Democratic Sen. John Breaux on Nov. 5 predicted the high-stakes Terrell-Landrieu runoff would generate $15 million in national party campaign spending, which he called "economic development." It was a bad joke.

Louisiana is known for running on its own timetable, so what's wrong with a December runoff? Plenty. First of all, it's bad for voter turnout. The Dec. 7 runoff was the only statewide race on the ballot. More races ensure a higher turnout, which means a more representative government. Campaigns are contentious affairs that should not collide with major holidays -- or the anniversary of Pearl Harbor. This argument applies not just to state and federal elections, but also to local contests, too. ("Elections Interrupted," Feb. 5, 2002).

The December runoff also makes for bad politics. Most other states hold "closed" party primaries, in which Republicans vote for Republicans and Democrats for Democrats; the parties' winners then face off in general elections. Under Louisiana's misnamed "open" primary system, everybody runs at once and political party affiliation usually means little. In a perfect world, the best candidate would win. In reality, our open primaries usually create large fields, which lead to extremes in runoff elections. "That's why we have these races from hell that tend to marginalize the mainstream candidates," says Jim Brandt, president of the private Public Affairs Research Council (PAR). "It usually results in a fairly small percentage of the electorate electing our officials."

At its worst, the system has left us with a sorry history of less-than-ideal choices. In the 1996 Senate runoff, a more liberal Mary Landrieu faced right-wing Republican state Rep." Woody" Jenkins. In the 1995 governor's runoff, conservative "populist" Republican Mike Foster faced ultra-liberal Sen. Cleo Fields. And in 1991, of course, populist "crook" Edwin Edwards faced neo-Nazi David Duke in the runoff -- a contest that was dubbed "the race from hell."

It hasn't always been like this. Louisiana had separate party primaries until 1974, when then-Gov. Edwards pushed for state passage of the open primary law -- one year before he ran for re-election. Some said at the time that it was designed to kill off the Republican Party, but exactly the opposite happened.

"The open primary law was created by Edwin Edwards for Edwin Edwards at the expense of both political parties," says state Rep. Charles Lancaster, R-Metairie, who has opposed the open primary for more than 25 years. "It is the best incumbent protection plan known to politicians in America. Every incumbent of every philosophy and party loves it because it helps them get re-elected most of the time." (Six of seven congressional incumbents won re-election easily on Nov. 5; the seventh, Cooksey, surrendered his seat to run against Landrieu.)

Federal law requires that federal elections be held in November. Louisiana once had its primaries in October with runoffs in November. However, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1998 that the October open primaries violated federal law because most congressional races were settled in October. U.S. Rep. Chris John (D-Crowley) vows to push for a bill that would grant Louisiana an exemption from the National Election Day Law. If approved, Louisiana would return to its former congressional election schedule of an October primary with November runoffs.

Congress might help Louisiana overrule the U.S. Supreme Court, but there's another way out of this December mess. Lawmakers could abolish the open primary system by a simple majority vote, says PAR's Brandt. "It could be done in the general legislative session, which opens March 29. For some reasons, the idea is considered dead in the water. Partly it has do with changing the rules right before the fall 2003 election for governor and the Legislature."

We're tired of hearing that good government legislation can't be passed because it's an election year. As far as we are concerned, this issue is the first shot in the 2003 elections. Let's repeal the open primary law, end the incumbent protection plan, and finish off the soiled electoral legacy of EWE.

Above all, let's let Dec. 7th commemorate Pearl Harbor -- not Louisiana's day of infamy.

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