State Sen. Jay Dardenne, R-Baton Rouge, last week fought the good fight in the Senate for a more informed electorate -- and he got clobbered for it. It was a battle that attracted little notice. With more support from reform-minded groups and citizens, it is a fight worth fighting again. We're talking about Senate Bill 496, which would have extended the time between qualifying and Election Day by setting qualifying dates earlier. Earlier qualifying dates give voters more time to see who's really running and to examine the candidates' qualifications and records. It is more than just good government, it is very good government.
Granted, Dardenne's efforts to change the state election code are not as sensational as, say, freshman state Rep. Derrick Shepherd's bill to ban sagging pants. Unlike Shepherd (D-Marrero), Dardenne is not likely to be featured on Comedy Central's The Daily Show. But Dardenne may yet get the last laugh. When term limits toss out more than a third of all legislative incumbents in 2007, serious voters will want to be informed about the slew of candidates running for those vacant seats. And nonpartisan watchdogs like the Council for a Better Louisiana (CABL), the League of Women Voters and this newspaper will need more time to provide voters with a comprehensive review of so many candidates and their issue positions. "With term limits kicking in, we are going to have a lot of races with a lot of new people," says CABL president Barry Erwin. "And I think voters need a little more time to know who these people are and what they stand for."
As we saw during the 2003 primary elections for governor, candidates with so little time and so many forum invitations can miss critical events -- such as a debate sponsored by a coalition of Louisiana environmental groups that attracted neither Kathleen Blanco nor Bobby Jindal. Last year, prior to the governor's race, we stated that Louisiana's political season is too short and all but guarantees an uninformed citizenry at election time ("Timing is Everything," July 29, 2003). Now, for an informed electorate, the Senate should revive Dardenne's bill, which was defeated last week by a vote of 22-13. (Four senators were absent, including Senate President Donald Hines, D-Bunkie, and Francis Heitmeier, D-Algiers.)
"It didn't do well at all," Dardenne says of his bill. "It had no support, except for CABL. It just kind of went through under radar, with no opposition in committee. I don't think anybody was working against it. I think the [Senate] body just had one of those chemical reactions to the bill and shot it down." Dardenne says he will not try to resurrect his bill without more support.
We think SB 496 should be revived. It would modestly increase the period of time between qualifying and the primary, while lifting Louisiana off the bottom of a dubious index. Currently, Louisiana gives its voters less time to study the candidates before a primary election than any other Southern state -- a mere 43 days. Dardenne's bill would stretch Louisiana's primary election time frame to at least 60 days, but not more than 67. Even then, Louisiana's electoral season would still fall short of the Southern average of 73 days.
Dardenne's bill failed amid Senate concerns that his proposal would require candidates to spend more money and time on the campaign trail. Dardenne correctly argued that candidates traditionally spend most of their money in the last two or three weeks of a campaign. As for spending more time on the campaign trail, well, that's a good thing. Further, moving the starting line up a week or two would actually help incumbents "smoke out" their opposition earlier, Dardenne said. The senator's pragmatic arguments suggest the real reason for his bill's failure, however: a short political season helps incumbents. When voters have little time to study the candidates, the odds favor those with familiar names. "It was a self-serving vote on the part of a lot of the legislators," says Erwin of CABL.
Revival and passage of SB 469 also will help civic groups host campaign forums and gather candidate responses to questionnaires. "Even if we have a good solid survey, you cannot send it out until qualifying closes and you know who is running," Erwin says of CABL's much-anticipated issues questionnaire given to legislative and statewide candidates every four years. "Then you have to give the candidates 10 days to two weeks to fill it out and return the surveys. Then we have to put it in some form the voters can digest. By that time, the election is on top of you." Sen. John Hainkel, R-New Orleans, was the only local senator to support SB 469. The New Orleans-area senators who did not support it include Diana Bajoie, Ann Duplessis, Ken Hollis, Paulette Irons, Art Lentini and Tom Schedler (plus Heitmeier, who was absent). That's just enough to pass the measure. We urge our readers to call those senators -- and tell them to give voters just a little more time.