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Jindal bats away try at partisan election law rewrite

Last week, Gov. Bobby Jindal made what appeared an odd veto, of HB 533 by state Rep. Rick Gallot. But understanding the legislative history of the bill shows the wisdom of it.

In the past, bills like this, sponsored by the chairman of the House and Governmental Affairs Committee, made annual minor revisions to the state’s election code, tinkering to improve administration. And at its beginning, it was not controversial except for one provision, elimination of poll watchers for early voting. While a bit troubling for ballot integrity, where volunteers from organizations provide self-policing, that early voting occurs in limited locations under the supervision of local registrars in and of itself meant this part did not merit the bill’s demise.

But it picked up a hitchhiker along the way that Gallot had inserted as a palliative for the failure of HB 82 by state Rep. Rosalind Jones, which would have removed party affiliations for all but federal elections and those for political party office.
Gallot, Jones, and state Democrats know their label is becoming more and more toxic for anybody in the state, and so to stop the erosion of the party’s fortunes in state and local elections they hoped to negate any advantage party labels gave to Republicans with her bill.

Naturally, as expected this was sniffed out and stopped by panel Republicans. So the tactic during that meeting was to change in HB 533 the official “no party” designation used for candidates that registered as voters who did not indicate some kind of recognized or unrecognized by the state political party to “independent.” The difference is, “independent” connotes a kind of political party (you would be surprised how many incoming American Government students think there is an “Independent Party” before me and the textbook get it out of their heads).

By trying to get this into law, it both would erode power from political parties and serve a partisan purpose for Democrats. A label is the most important thing that a party can bestow on a candidate, precisely because it serves as a shortcut for valuable information about a candidate’s issue preferences. By implying a label is that of a party when it isn’t because no such party exists, it cheapens the quality of elections. On a partisan level, the impression of an “Independent” party may provide an avenue for Democrats to avoid their label and to compete better than as “no party” candidates, which, to many voters, signals a less-serious candidate under the impression that otherwise a party label would have been chosen by that candidate.

In his veto message, the Republican Jindal indirectly touched on both of these factors when he pointed out that state law prohibited recognition of any political party as the “Independent” or “Independent Party.” Whether in absolute legal sense allowing HB 533 through, which would have implied that any candidate listed as “Independent” therefore belonged to an “Independent Party,” would cause a legal conflict, there is no doubt the spirit of that other law was being broken to put HB 533 on the books.

Gallot proceeded to offer up a lame explanation that Republicans thought this labeling might spur breakaway candidacies against Republicans, conveniently forgetting those tended to come from individuals who declared a pox on all parties and generally would think the “no party” designation really fit their purposes. This he stated only to hide the fact that partisan motives on his and his party’s part all along had been the driving force behind this and HB 82. The relatively minor aspects of the bill can wait another year, and the bonus from the veto is not eliminating the additional election safeguard of poll watchers at early voting.

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