Dennis Persica: Legislation targets NOLA election dates

BY DENNIS PERSICA

Special to The Advocate

What was probably the most important night in Mitch Landrieu’s political career was followed by the most significant day in New Orleans sports history.

The election for mayor and other city officials in 2010 was Feb. 6. The next day — Feb. 7, a date burned into the minds of many — the New Orleans Saints won the Super Bowl. Mardi Gras was a week later. Do you think people were paying attention to the campaign in the weeks leading up to the election? How many potential voters decided to travel to Miami for the Super Bowl, even without game tickets in hand, and how many bothered to vote before leaving town?

Every four years, politics competes for the city’s attention, which normally is focused on Carnival and football then.

The 2014 city elections, which for the first time will use a new system to choose two at-large council members, are scheduled Feb. 1. The Super Bowl is Feb. 2, but, fortunately, the game is in New Jersey. Imagine trying to host the game here the same week as the election. Or, more to the point, imagine trying to hold an election the same week the big game is in town.

When the Super Bowl was held in New Orleans this year, many who remembered previous games here were surprised at how much the National Football League’s control over the city seemed to have grown. Add to that the increased concern over security after the Boston Marathon bombing and you might see an even-tougher lockdown of host cities for future games.

Next year’s runoffs — if necessary — will be March 15, which means Mardi Gras, March 4, will interrupt any campaigns. Next year’s schedule is a departure from normal practice, which usually places the runoff four weeks after the primary. Keeping the 2014 elections to the normal schedule would have put the runoff on the same Saturday that the Krewe of Endymion rolls its massive parade.

The League of Women Voters studied this issue in 2011. It pointed out that the election process is disrupted because the holidays intervene right after Orleans candidates qualify in mid-December. That’s followed by the Sugar Bowl and related events, the college football championship (which sometimes is held in New Orleans, and which sometimes features the LSU Tigers), NFL playoffs and the beginning of the Carnival season. Besides being a distraction, these events also affect the ability to train poll commissioners and get voting machines to polls near parade routes, the study said.

Senate Bill 191 lays out a new plan for electing New Orleans officials after next year. The bill would move the elections that under the current schedule would be held in early 2018 to the fall of 2017.

Under the bill proposed by state Sens. J.P. Morrell and Ed Murray and state Reps. Jared Brossett and Walter Leger III, the city’s primary will be held on the third Saturday in October, beginning in 2017. The runoff will be four weeks later.

So that the terms of officials elected in 2014 won’t be shortened, city officials elected under the new scheme in 2017 will still take office the following May, as is the case now. But those elected in the fall of 2021 will assume their posts in January 2022, and January will be the normal inauguration date every four years.

If SB191 becomes law, it’ll help clear out that bottleneck that entangles politics, Mardi Gras and football every four years.

Dennis Persica is a New Orleans-area journalist. In his weekly column he shares his thoughts and observations about people, places and issues in the New Orleans area. Persica’s email address is dpersica@gmail.com.