Another day, another sitting Louisiana state legislator switches from Democrat to Republican. It’s not that rare; in the past half-century, as the state began its slow, delayed, and ultimately successful turn to conservatism, 37 of these have happened. But the speed of three in the past month has gotten some in the media to wonder whether that ought to be permitted.
Even with the relative commonality of switching in the state’s recent political history, it’s no big surprise that the three involved, state Rep. Jim Fannin and state Sens. Elbert Guillory and Rick Ward, made the move. While Ward has been around only two years and has averaged just under 50 on the Louisiana Legislative Log’s voting index, where a score of 100 reveals all votes on legislation as conservative or reformist and his was above the Democrat average but below the Republicans’, the other two’s showed they had voted more conservative/reform than almost all Democrats and above the GOP average during their times in office.
After Ward’s, which gave Republicans a two-thirds/supermajority advantage in the Senate, at least one media outlet asked vox populi about whether state legislators in office should have to have to win an election under their new label to stay in office. There is precedence for elected officials to resign voluntarily and run in a special election, but almost no state places any kind of restriction on the ability for officeholders to switch.
Recently, Florida did make a change in law that said within a year of qualifying to run for reelection an incumbent could do so only under the same recognized party label. However, that would stop switching only in the last year of a term and it’s uncertain whether in Louisiana such a law would not run afoul of a basic right enumerated in Art. I Sec. 3 of the Constitution that guarantees freedom of political affiliation.
Advocates hold out party labeling, even as it has become greatly reduced in its significance generally in terms of influence on voters’ decisions, as a sacred bond of trust between the elected and those who put someone in office. Thus, this breaking conveys new information about the officeholder and the electorate should get an immediate chance to reevaluate this person with a forced election. This also would discourage a form of opportunism claimed of these jumpers, who are said to adopt labels with an eye towards how it makes them appear electorally.
Note, of course, how such explanations contradict each other; in the former instance, politicians switch away from a posture previously assumed to get elected and then adopt their true calling after they have the advantages of incumbency to stay in office, while in the latter case they switch because they need to create a posture that makes them more electable. Which is it, a switch is a sign you were fooling people to get elected, or that you’re trying to fool them now to get reelected?
This conceptual confusion about the meaning of switching also extends to the purported solution as such a law actually would reduce public accountability of elected officials. If faced with this kind of law, one that says you can’t switch unless it’s during qualification for the next regular term, officials would be discouraged from switching during a term and simply would act deceptively throughout, voting less often than in the past with the rest of their colleagues. That would hide information from voters – that they admit they are not what they once claimed and that they are deceptive in that sense – that becomes open and revealed by a switch for its use and evaluation at the next regular election.
And this view of betrayal additionally forgets that a solution already presents itself in Louisiana – use of a recall election. If enough voters feel cheated by a presumed untrustworthy turncoat, they can cue up one of those. That will cost extra taxpayer dollars, but it is better for the people of the affected jurisdiction to trigger that additional cost on themselves and/or the state instead of having it thrust upon them unwillingly through a required special election (which, again, likely would be avoided and subterfuge practiced instead by the officeholder).
Accountability is best served by not restricting switches in any way and economical means already exist to allow those jilted by switchers to punish the deemed miscreants. Any change to this current state of affairs is a step in the wrong direction.