If there is one thing Louisiana needs, it is an informed and engaged electorate. Fighting voter apathy is a national challenge, one with no quick fix. One step in the right direction, however, is giving voters ample opportunity to educate themselves about issues and candidates.
Louisiana's current political season is too short and all but guarantees an uninformed citizenry at election time. Qualifying for a host of state and local offices isn't until Aug. 19-21, and the statewide primary is just six weeks later on Oct. 4. While many candidates are actively campaigning, nothing's official until qualifying closes Aug. 21. Voters then will have less than 45 days to pick a new governor and six other statewide officials, plus legislators, police jurors, sheriffs, clerks, assessors and other local officials. (Any runoffs would be decided Nov. 15.)
By contrast, the New Orleans Saints training camp opened Saturday, and already fans are poring over scouting reports, statistics, interviews, and projections -- nursing dreams of a Super Bowl contest that's six months away. Too bad candidates in the statewide primary won't get such long, intense scrutiny.
It's too late to change the current election schedule, but incumbent and would-be legislators should begin the drive now for a longer season during the 2007 statewide elections. Other states have closed party primary systems that give voters a longer, better look at candidates. For example, Pennsylvania's 2002 governor's race began in the spring and concluded in the fall. Louisiana, on the other hand, has an open primary system in which all candidates, regardless of party affiliation, run against each other in a political free-for-all. In addition to effectively dismantling political parties, Louisiana's six-week primary campaign gives voters precious little time to study candidates and issues.
Compounding the problem is the fact that candidates for seven statewide offices -- governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, attorney general, treasurer, insurance commissioner, and agriculture and forestry commissioner -- will be competing for the public's attention. In addition, all 144 legislative seats are on the ballot, as well as district seats on the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. The public also must digest 15 constitutional amendments. Voters in Jefferson Parish (and in most other parishes) also will elect a sheriff, clerk of court, assessor, coroner, parish president and parish council. In Orleans Parish, there is a special election for Clerk of Criminal District Court.
In the governor's race alone, eight major candidates are taking stands on complex issues such as economic development, education, coastal management and health care. Who can sift through all of these issues and candidates in six weeks and make informed decisions? Even non-partisan government watchdogs admit they are hard-pressed to provide voters with comprehensive election guides in such a short season. When professional election watchers are strained to keep up with the information overload, it's a sure bet the average voter will be less informed than ever.
The Public Affairs Research Council (PAR) and the state chapter of the League of Women Voters, both of Baton Rouge, will jointly publish in-depth surveys of the candidates for governor -- but not the candidates for six other statewide offices or legislative seats. PAR president Jim Brandt cites "logistical problems" and "space limitations" in deciding not to preview legislative candidates. Meanwhile, the Council for a Better Louisiana (CABL), another good-government group, will sponsor two televised gubernatorial debates and publish detailed surveys of candidates for the seven statewide races. The self-described "legislative watchdog," however, will not grill any candidates for the Legislature. Why? CABL president Barry Erwin explains that his organization had to make a "strategic decision" during the "compressed" primary election season. To its credit, CABL has tried to persuade the Legislature to consider stretching out the primary election schedule in the past -- to no avail. "We ought to have qualifying a month earlier," Erwin says.
Politically active groups such as The New Orleans Regional Chamber of Commerce also support the idea. "The devil really is in the details when you talk about changing the state," says Jack Walker, director of public policy for The Chamber. NOAPAC, the political action committee of the regional Chamber, has decided to focus its energy in just a few races and acknowledges that, in some, it will likely favor incumbents with acceptable voting records. "It would be difficult for us to meet with every candidate," Walker says. "With incumbents, we are dealing with a known quantity."
That, perhaps, explains our short political season more than anything else. That is, it helps incumbents. When voters at all levels have little time to study the candidates, chances are those with the familiar names will win -- regardless of their records. Legislative incumbents made these rules, so it's no surprise that the rules favor them.
But that doesn't make them right. We think setting the field earlier helps the public and our watchdogs, including the media, become more informed. And that, hopefully, will give us better public officials. In a state perpetually in search of progress, this is a most important first step.