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Low turnouts won't eliminate LA elective offices

With the absurdly-low turnout for the Louisiana treasurer special election, some talk has emerged about eliminating as elective minor statewide elective offices like that. That will prove daunting in a state with a political culture built upon office-holding.

Almost every state goes beyond the federal government model of two elected executives because of presumed “good government” movements in the latter part of the nineteenth and early part of the twentieth centuries. Then, because of rampant corruption in many state governments, reformers decided by fragmenting power in state governments this would prevent its concentration that made graft inviting and possible. Louisiana’s rich history, if anything, encouraged this multiplicity from reformers.

States vary in the number of elected singular executives, ranging from New Hampshire electing only its governor to South Carolina and Washington having nine. When it enacting its 1974 Constitution, Louisiana remained part of that highest tier, including the seven still elected today plus a commissioner of elections and a superintendent of education.

Those two disappeared as the 1974 document designated several of the nine elected as optional. Art. IV Sec. 20 of it stated that, upon two-thirds vote of the Legislature, any of the offices of commissioner of agriculture, commissioner of insurance, commissioner of elections, or superintendent of education could be switched to appointive, with a special provision for the last wherein the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education would do the appointing. That began for it in 1988, and the Legislature also made the elections commissioner appointive underneath the secretary of state, beginning in 2004.

Each loss of elective nature occurred under special circumstances. Neither office had started out under the predecessor 1921 Constitution as elective, but politics and forceful personalities involved triggered amending it to make them so. In the case of education, turmoil from desegregation and shoddy performance prompted elimination of elective status, figuring that splitting up authority too much detracted from improving delivery so amendments and legislation centralized power into the hands of eight elected and three gubernatorial-appointed BESE members. In the case of elections, scandal precipitated the change.

Therefore, the historical record indicates that a switch to appointive status for the remaining two posts may come only with significant turmoil attached. That the Department of Insurance had exactly that – three consecutive commissioners put away for corrupt activities inside and outside of office, and even more recently a deputy commissioner sent to prison for the same – and yet nary a peep to change selection method has surfaced, showing the reluctance policy-makers have for attempting that.

This would signal even slimmer chances for altering the method for any or all of lieutenant governor, secretary of state, attorney general, or treasurer, which would require a constitutional amendment. And it all goes back to Louisiana’s political culture and history.

With its turn towards government primarily as an instrument to redistribute wealth and power almost a century ago, this made the appeal of political office more appealing. Even if an office might have few patronage and policy opportunities of any real significance, aspirants still valued that and understood that these positions could serve as preparation for higher, more substantial office with greater powers. And while appointment could secure a post, election proved the surest means of entering one and less encumbered to or controlled by others than if appointed.

Thus, the greater number of elective opportunities at the state and local level, the more snouts could find their way into the trough. Even as this culture has slowly eroded as modernization in Louisiana government and maturation in voter attitudes have taken hold, particularly in the last decade, it remains potent. So, until it degrades further, don’t count on legislators – who typically see a state elected spot as a way to extend term-limited legislative careers – to limit intentionally the number of slots requiring elected officials.

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