Election dates making a move to fall

Groups: City events eclipse voter focus

Christmas. Mardi Gras. The Super Bowl.

And, oh yeah, an election.

That’s what the New Orleans calendar has looked like oftentimes since the 1980s, but not for long. After years of frustration among civic groups and politicians about a local election schedule that often leaves candidates and ballot issues at least partially drowned out, voting is poised to move back up to the fall.

The switch will happen in 2017. Instead of a qualifying period that lands in December, followed by a primary in February and a runoff in March, qualifying will happen in August, followed by voting in October and November.

That will turn the clock back to before 1986, when lawmakers slid the dates back in order to shrink a six-month gap between elections in the fall and the inauguration in May. The idea now is to do the opposite and simply move up the inauguration to early January.

The League of Women Voters led the push to move elections back to the fall.

They surveyed the local political scene and came out with a report in 2011 titled, “Celebrate or Vote: Does the Calendar Affect Voting in Orleans Parish?” The group’s answer was yes, so Sen. J. P. Morrell, Sen. Edwin Murray, Rep. Walt Leger and Rep. Jared Brossett put their names on a bill this year that cleared the legislature easily and won Gov. Bobby Jindal’s signature this week.

The change won’t affect voting next year, when Mayor Mitch Landrieu, Sheriff Marlin Gusman, City Council members and other local officials will stand for reelection.

Employing some political savvy themselves, League members made sure to put the switch far enough in the future so as not to dent the terms of anyone running for office in the immediate future. Next year’s successful candidates will serve from May 2014 until May 2018. But the round of candidates after that will take office in May 2018 and only serve until January 2022, losing about four months from their four-year term.

The next piece of the puzzle is actually moving the inauguration from May to January. That will take a vote of the City Council and, potentially, a change to the city’s charter, said Jane Jurik, who heads the League’s voter service committee.

Aside from bringing the elections into a less crowded season, the change may also simplify life for future mayors. Taking office in May means almost half of the budget for that year — and sometimes more — has already been spent, leaving a short window for the next administration to make adjustments if needed. When Landrieu took office he was staring at an immense hole in the city’s finances and eventually had to cut more than $100 million out of the city’s spending plan for the balance of the year.

And, of course, moving up the elections will have ancillary benefits: no more campaign commercials while everyone is busy opening presents, cheering the Saints (fingers crossed) and sorting Mardi Gras beads.