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Some electoral system changes for the better

Election calendar changes are in the air, and that’s mostly a good thing.

Recently, the state Republican Party executive committee approved a change to move up by a month the party’s presidential preference primary for 2008 (which means almost certainly its Central Committee will approve). It would take legislative action for this to become reality (which means Democrats also would have to approve of moving theirs), unless the GOP wanted to go with a caucus on that date instead.

The impetus for this is that as the dynamics of nomination races continue to grant greater rewards to early delegate winners, states that award delegates later find their contests increasingly meaningless. Thus, more and more states are rushing to front-load their delegate selections in the process. Last week, the national Democrats took on this issue themselves.

It’s kind of a negative thing to join the pack in this rush, but it may have the salutary effect of forcing the hands of Iowa (first caucus) and New Hampshire (first state). Both have jealously guarded this privilege; New Hampshire, for example, has made it a matter of state law to have the first primary. In effect, they prevent reforms such as several days of primaries, spaced by a week each, where multiple states go to the polls on each, and each election cycle the groups are rotated in temporal order.

In reality, the national parties have to get involved here. They have to force these two states to share the spotlight or to rotate the first election date with others. That would happen only if the national parties refused to seat New Hampshire’s delegates if they were elected too "early," which they can do and have an alternative delegation seated or none at all. This would require some fortitude, but likely these states would back down in the parties pressed the issue.

More to the point of Louisiana, a bill introduced by state rep. Loulan Pitre promises to end the wasteful, costly way that general elections for congressional offices are done in the state as well as giving political parties a shot in the arm. Recall that the present system where all candidates run together in a single primary allows a general election (if no candidate gets an absolute majority in the primary) with two candidates of the same party (in a single-member jurisdiction).

HB 40 would make a technical change in state law that would circumvent a Supreme Court decision that forced Louisiana to schedule its primary election for congressional offices on the same day as national election day (first Tuesday after the first Monday in even-numbered years) because the state’s nonpartisan blanket primary system could produce a result as if it were a general election. This created a December general election that not only cost additional, but gave some Louisiana new members of Congress a late start.

It wasn’t a wise decision – if only one party in any state with any primary system had candidates running, the selection of that candidate likewise is tantamount to election – but it’s here and Pitre’s bill would once again allow the primary election in Louisiana to be held at an earlier time (with other state elections) while the general (also a “runoff”) election could occur on national election day. Given the Court’s reasoning in the 1997 decision, whether this satisfies it is another matter.

More intriguingly, in all elections the bill would disallow a general (runoff) election between members of the same party. This certainly would increase the competitiveness of parties in the state, probably to the benefit of the Republicans. With the nonpartisan blanket primary in effect, conservative Democrats stay in that party because there is no penalty for them to do so; indeed, it may benefit them by attracting black votes they might otherwise not get. In a closed primary state (where only party registrants can vote in a party’s primary), a more liberal Democrat could beat one in a primary because most conservatives would vote in a Republican primary. Here, they can run against more liberal Democrats and if forcing a runoff between those two, other conservative votes could bring that person the victory in the general (runoff) election.

For this reason, Democrats will look skeptically at this bill. But they shouldn’t because by making party labels more relevant, the parties themselves will become more meaningful. In doing so, it may bring the Democrats more resources in order to stem the GOP tide that has swept the state at the national level and now threatens to do so at the state level regardless of the blanket primary system. Keeping things as they are may delay Republican gains, but once the Republicans are in the majority (as is inevitable, just a matter of time now), the Democrats will be less competitive than without this law.

The real solution is to junk the current system, but if that won’t happen, this is the next best step.

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