The Democrats are hopping mad at Rodney Alexander -- and for good reason.

Alexander is a previously anonymous freshman House member from Quitman, La. The 57-year-old was elected in 2002 by a scant 974 votes and so was one of the new members whom Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and others in the party hierarchy set out to protect in the upcoming election.

Protection in Alexander's case included raising $70,000 from relatively safe Democratic members to bulk up his campaign treasury. That was in addition to the $193,000 the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) pumped into his race in the election and runoff in which he finally prevailed in 2002.

Alexander filed for reelection as a Democrat, along with other incumbents. And then, last Friday afternoon, a half-hour before filings closed, he refiled, this time as a Republican. The last-minute switcheroo adds one seat to the narrow House Republican majority and leaves the Democrats holding the bag. Alexander has one opponent from each party, but no one of any stature had time to consider the race.

It is a scuzzy bit of business and the Democrats are properly furious. Rep. Bob Matsui of California, the chairman of the DCCC, let loose on Alexander for his "calculated and cowardly act of personal advancement."

Matsui demanded that the turncoat give back the money the Democrats had raised for him in 2002 and this year, "based upon his fraudulent claim that he was a Democrat running for Congress."

On Monday Alexander's Washington office staff let him know what they thought of the deal. They resigned en masse, saying that they wanted no part of this business.

The notable footnote to this tale of political chicanery is that some of the same people who denounced Alexander had been celebrants in 2001 when another switch -- which mightily benefited the Democrats -- occurred on the Senate side of the Capitol. In May of that year, just a few months after he had been elected to a six-year term as a Republican, Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont declared that he was an independent. As a result of his action, the Senate, which had been tied 50-50, with Vice President Cheney casting the tie-breaking vote for the Republicans, reverted to Democratic control, 50 to 49 to 1.

Jeffords described his switch as an act of conscience, and he was rewarded for his deed by being made chairman of his favorite committee, handling environmental legislation. Democrats not only did not find fault with his action, but they celebrated his courage and gladly welcomed him into their caucus.

The timing in the two cases was slightly different, with Alexander crowding the filing deadline and Jeffords waiting until the votes had been counted and he had been sworn in for another term.

But in both cases, the candidates avoided the honorable step of placing their case clearly before the voters in a fashion that acknowledged that their constituents ought to have the right to pass judgment on their choice of new affiliations.

If Alexander was no longer comfortable calling himself a Democrat, then file as a Republican -- but do it in a timely fashion so the voters can have a real choice on the ballot.

If Jeffords's sensibilities are offended by much of the Republican platform, then decide before the election to run as an independent -- or, if conscience strikes after Election Day, then resign your seat and run in a special election as an independent.

The honorable course is the one that Phil Gramm of Texas followed when he fell out with House Democrats back in the Reagan years. Gramm supported President Ronald Reagan on crucial budget and tax votes, frustrating Democrats who had placed him on the budget committee. They retaliated by stripping him of his power position, and he, in turn, called their bluff by resigning his seat, going home and running for it as a Republican. He won, and his act of conscience positioned him to move on to the Senate.

It is egotism to believe, without proving it, that your constituents love you so well they don't care what party you belong to -- if any. Parties make a difference, and party loyalty is a commendable trait, not a weakness. When you reach the point where you can't stand the label any longer, it behooves you to let the constituents test "the new you" in a fair fight. Dodging that test dishonors the process.