CATEGORY: COL Columns (Journal)

AUTHOR: LLOYD

HED:Lloyd Gray: Why not combine some election years?

Tuesday's elections haven't stirred much interest in Northeast Mississippi, even with some competitive judicial races and school board slots on the ballot.

The marquee race in an off-year election (meaning a year when the presidency isn't voted on) is usually a congressional campaign, whether for the Senate or the U.S. House. But traditionally in Mississippi we have truly competitive congressional races infrequently, basically when a seat opens up. This year is pretty much the norm with 1st District Rep. Roger Wicker facing only token opposition.

There's no Senate race on the ballot. Trent Lott is next up for re-election in 2000, Thad Cochran in 2002.

So there's very little to energize the electorate and turnout will likely be abysmally low.

Yet something else shares the blame for widespread voter apathy in Mississippi: too many elections. If you think about it, the political season never really ends in our state.

Looming over this year's minimal-interest campaigns are next year's state elections, which will begin in earnest almost as soon as the ballots are cast Tuesday. We just voted last year for city officials. The year before that it was the presidency and Congress. Judicial and school board elections weave in and out of these schedules irregularly.

In other words, we vote on something every year in Mississippi. And by the time the four-year cycle is finished we vote on virtually everything. We elect too many offices that ought to be appointed, and that's part of what produces the apathy too many offices to keep up with and learn about. But even without changing the number of offices we elect, we might generate more interest in voting if we reduced the number of times we're asked to go to the polls.

Most states combine their state elections with either the presidential or off-year congressional races. Why shouldn't Mississippi?

Changes have been proposed in the past that would do this. Since the state elections now fall just one year before presidential years, the easiest logistical transition would be to move state elections to coincide with the off-year congressional elections.

A state constitutional amendment introduced in the Legislature a few years ago would have established a three-year term for state and county officials elected in 1995 and set the next state elections for 1998. It obviously didn't get anywhere, surely in part because of the shortened term that would be necessary in any changeover.

Yet such a change would have given us a full ballot this year, from constable to governor, along with the other races to be decided, and obviously would have improved the turnout. It would have saved a lot of money since holding elections is expensive. Even better than that, it would have given us an entire year off from campaigning in 1999.

The upshot of that change would be that one in every four years would provide such a break. Surely that's not too much to ask.

The endless campaigning becomes a blur for most voters, even the most conscientious citizens. One election blends into another. There is no respite, no relief. Pretty soon a lot of folks just decide it's too much trouble.

Of course, democratic governance requires vigilance on the part of citizens, and good citizenship requires casting an informed ballot whenever there's an election. Too few people take that responsibility seriously.

But there's no sense dragging out the democratic process to such an extent that it discourages active participation by making elections seem redundant.

Combining elections would increase interest in voting and reduce costs. What more recommendation does it need?

Lloyd Gray is editor of the Daily Journal.

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