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Getting in Step 

Louisiana is a political consultant's paradise, particularly in New Orleans. We have at least one major election season a year, not counting the numerous special elections brought on by the inevitable death, elevation or imprisonment of various elected officials each year.

If you start with the presidential election cycle, which we're in right now, Louisiana in 2004 has up for grabs an open U.S. Senate seat and at least two open congressional seats -- plus a bevy of judicial contests and the Orleans Parish School Board.

Next year will be the warm-up for the New Orleans mayoral race and the City Council elections. That election is set for February and March of 2006, but the jockeying is already beginning.

At the end of 2006, of course, we'll have the next round of congressional elections.

The year 2007 will bring another statewide election cycle -- governor and all other statewide elected officials, legislators, sheriffs, assessors, clerks and others.

In 2008, we'll start all over again with the next presidential contest -- plus all district judges and district attorneys in the state will be up for re-election. Also in that year, U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu will be up for re-election, as will all members of Congress.

And on it goes.

It's been argued that staggering our election cycles allows voters to focus on the "down ballot" races without becoming distracted by presidential politics, but you can't tell by the turnout figures. In the last three election cycles, turnout in presidential races has averaged 70 percent -- but in the last three primary elections for governor it was less than 55 percent. That's a significant drop no matter how you look at it, and it gives the lie to the notion that voters are focusing on anything other than fishing, squirrel hunting, LSU football or shopping during the statewide election season.

On that basis alone, state Rep. Peppi Bruneau, R-New Orleans, has a powerful argument in support of his proposed constitutional amendment to change the date of Louisiana's statewide elections so that they coincide with the national elections, starting in 2008. How can anybody argue against increasing voter turnout in the elections for governor, state Legislature, statewide officials and more than 700 other locally elected officials?

Another argument in support of Bruneau's proposition is that it will save the state at least $6.4 million every four years. "This will enable us to buy the new voting machines required by the Help America Vote Act," he says.

Some are sniping at Bruneau's bill because, in order to take effect in the 2008 election cycle, it necessarily extends by one year the terms of nearly 900 incumbent elected officials across Louisiana -- many of whom face mandatory retirement because of term limits. Bruneau correctly argues that the extension is unavoidable if Louisiana is ever going to join the 44 other states that elect their legislatures -- and the 47 states that elect their governors -- at the same time America chooses its national leaders. "If we don't do it now, the next opportunity will be 2012," he says. "This bill has nothing to do with term limits, and this is NOT an effort to circumvent the term limit provisions of our state's constitution. Under the federal constitution, you cannot shorten someone's term in office while they hold the office; you can only extend a term. You simply have to start somewhere."

Bruneau's bill passed the House of Representatives by a margin of 72 to 29 and now awaits action in the Senate. It needs a two-thirds vote of both houses -- plus voter approval in a statewide referendum -- to become part of our state constitution.

As proof that his proposal is politically neutral, Bruneau notes that his co-authors include Democrats, Republicans, blacks, whites and urban as well as rural legislators.

So who would oppose this measure? Well, The Times-Picayune, for one. Maybe that's because the T-P makes a pile of money off political advertising. That's a legitimate concern for a newspaper's business office, but it kinda takes the wind out of the paper's sails as an advocate for political and governmental reform. In Louisiana, many people's desire for reform stops at their wallets. In this case, the public's purse -- and voter turnout -- would be better off if we changed our election cycle and got in step with the rest of America.

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