Court Nixes Change in Election Day
By Richard Carelli
WASHINGTON (AP) States cannot elect members of Congress before the national election day in November, the Supreme Court ruled today as it struck down part of Louisiana's open-primary practice.
By a unanimous vote, the court said Louisiana's unique method of choosing members of Congress violates federal law.
In another ruling, the court said people can be convicted under a federal bribery law even when the transaction did not involve federal funds. In unanimously upholding a Texas jail official's conviction, the justices said people can be convicted of racketeering-conspiracy without proof that they agreed to commit the two acts required for a conviction of an actual racketeering offense.
At issue in the Louisiana case was a provision of the Constitution that allows states to set the "times, places and manner" of elections for members of Congress unless Congress overrides state rules with a national standard.
Congress long ago set a national election day for members of Congress the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November in even-numbered years.
Since 1978, Louisiana has voted for members of Congress through open primaries, which allow all candidates to appear on the same October primary ballot regardless of political party.
If no primary candidate gets more than half of the total votes, the top two vote-getters appear on the November ballot. But if one candidate does obtain more than half of the October vote, he or she is declared the winner and there is no vote for that congressional seat in November.
For nearly 20 years, the overwhelming majority of Louisiana's contested congressional elections have been decided in the October primary.
Today, the nation's highest court said that method cannot continue. "When Louisiana's statute is applied to select from among congressional candidates in October, it conflicts with federal law and to that extent is void," Justice David H. Souter wrote for the court.
Louisiana officials now must choose from several options, but the Supreme Court did not suggest any of them.
One of the least intrusive would be moving the state's open primary for congressional elections to the national election day in November and holding any necessary run-offs sometime between that day and the start of the new congressional session in January.
Gov. Mike Foster appeared to embrace that option today. "We'll simply change the date of the open primary for congressional elections to the national election day in November," he said.
Another option would be to no longer designate a winner in the October primary and instead put only the top vote-getter's name on the November ballot. A single ballot cast for that candidate on the national election day would be sufficient to declare him or her the winner.
Other options include eliminating the open-primary system for congressional elections only or getting rid of it for all elections -- state and federal.
Attorney General Richard Ieyoub took the high court defeat in stride. "It certainly is not unexpected," he said. "It seemed throughout the questioning ... the justices were saying that Louisiana could have its cake and eat it too simply by juggling the dates. Now it's up to the Legislature."
A special session is scheduled for early next year, and a solution to the open-primary problem is to be one of the issues addressed.
Today's decision upheld a federal appeals court ruling that invalidated the open primary system for congressional elections.
The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last year had ruled that Louisiana's system "thwarts the congressional purpose of establishing a uniform day to prevent earlier elections from influencing later voters."
The appeals court, however, allowed the 1996 open-primary vote.
In seeking the Supreme Court's help, Louisiana officials had argued that the appeals court ruling trampled states' rights.
The open-primary system for congressional elections was challenged by four Louisiana voters in a 1995 lawsuit.
The case is Foster vs. Love, 96-670.
© Copyright 1997 The Associated Press