|State officials may limit dates to cut costs and lessen voter fatigue.|
In 2010, St. Tammany Parish officials asked the state Bond Commission for an “emergency” tax renewal election. Their requested date fell on the Saturday before Christmas, current Secretary of State Tom Schedler says.
“Our comment was, why don't we just have it Christmas Day? Because there's not going to be any better of a turnout,” says Schedler, who was then Secretary of State Jay Dardenne's first assistant at the time.
The Bond Commission sided with Dardenne and Schedler.
“This is the only emergency election we're aware of that the Bond Commission has not rubber-stamped and approved,” Commissioner of Elections Angie Rogers says.
Louisiana, even after eliminating some election dates in recent years, still holds an awful lot of votes. Schedler has made it his mission to cut back even further, and suggests four elections per year—one per quarter—might be plenty.
Holding elections can get expensive. But Schedler also believes that the high number of elections leads to voter fatigue, causing people to disengage from the process. And low turnout means local governments often are making decisions based on the wishes of 5%, 8% or 10% of the electorate. In Baton Rouge April 21, a mere 26.2% showed up to decide the fate of a highly contentious 10.6-mill transit tax; even then, turnout was much higher in East Baton Rouge than in most other parishes.
Statewide elections cost about $5.8 million, Schedler says. Local elections cost, on average, about $1,250 per precinct. Louisiana had 70 elections from 2005 through 2010, while no other state held more than 38. Of the 70, 32 were special elections to fill suddenly vacant seats in the Legislature, which in 2010 passed a new law ending that practice. Regular election dates for local issues in January and July also have been eliminated in recent years.
The next step, Schedler says, is reducing the number of so-called emergency elections. There is no official definition of what constitutes an emergency. Is an error by a bond counsel an emergency? Or a last-minute renewal of an expiring tax? Locals often argue in the affirmative, and the governor's office and the Bond Commission seldom object. After all, who wants to come out against a vote of the people?
“Sometimes the word 'no' is OK,” Schedler says. “Everything's not an emergency.”
PAR President Robert Travis Scott says he's not worried about voter fatigue, noting that it's the public's responsibility to get out and vote.
“There are a lot of countries in the world where they would love to have the luxury of voter fatigue,” he says.
Of greater concern, Scott says, is the practice of making important decisions in low-turnout elections. A PAR report issued in January urged the Legislature to place state constitutional amendments on the November ballot, along with the presidential election and open primaries for judgeships, local seats and U.S. House districts, instead of in December, when many precincts might have nothing else on the ballot. PAR's view won out; there will be no amendments on a December ballot this year.
CHANGES IN THE LAW
Act 138 of the 2012 regular session is what the secretary of state's office calls its "omnibus bill" for the year. While the law mostly addresses minor technical changes, state Commissioner of Elections Angie Rogers points to two highlights:
• In the past, if a person died after voting early but before Election Day, the parish Board of Election Supervisors could challenge that vote and potentially not count it. But now, if voting early is one of your last acts on Earth, your vote will count.
• Propositions now are required to be phrased in the form of a question in "unbiased, clear, concise language," Rogers says. The Legislature made a similar change for constitutional amendments last year.
“One could very easily consolidate some of those [election] dates and save tax dollars, on the one hand, and also get much better turnout on the other,” says CABL President/CEO Barry Erwin.
Many people suspect that local taxing authorities and interest groups often prefer low-turnout elections, the better to slip a new tax past the public. But Tom Ed McHugh, former Baton Rouge mayor and executive director of the Louisiana Municipal Association, says that sword can cut both ways.
“There's victories and defeats in low turnouts,” McHugh says. “I don't know that there's a definite relationship in low turnout and winning or losing tax elections.”
Oftentimes, the chronic voters who show up to such elections are a pretty good barometer of where the broader community is on an issue, McHugh says. He acknowledges the difficulty in defining emergencies, but says communities often feel the need to make timely decisions about matters affecting public health and safety or an economic development opportunity.
“From a local perspective, I think we have ours pretty much under control,” McHugh says, noting the loss of the January and July dates. “I would hate to see any additional reductions.”
Kirby Goidel, director of LSU's Manship School Research Facility, says the argument for separating local elections from state and national elections tends to be that local elections should be about local issues, and not unduly influenced by state or national politics. Low-profile, low-information elections tend to empower local interest groups that are willing to spend a little money, he says.
“It gets into those issues about, who is government supposed to represent?” Goidel says. “Are they supposed to represent chronic voters, or are they supposed to represent the broader constituency?”
The secretary of state's office, despite being charged with running elections, has no official say in calling for elections. But Schedler has been meeting with various groups, such as the Police Jury Association of Louisiana, to discuss his idea for a commission that would review election requests.
While only a concept now, not a formal proposal, the basic idea is that the secretary of state, the governor's office, the leaders of the state House and Senate, and the entity calling for the election would all have representation. The commission could discuss whether a desired election is a true emergency or an event that can wait a while.
Maybe requests would go to the commission first, Schedler suggests. Maybe, after the meeting, the local entity would see the wisdom of sharing costs with the state by piggybacking on a statewide ballot. And maybe decisions would be made in elections where more than a handful of people go to the polls.
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