Something very unusual slipped through the Mississippi Legislature last week.
The Legislature passed a bill with a name that accurately reflects its intention.
If you are at all familiar with how the Legislature operates, you recognize that naming of bills has reached something approaching an artform in Mississippi.
The bills are given names designed to deflect criticism of laws of dubious or potentially controversial matters. So it is that a bill that denies rights to certain minority groups is given a name adorned with tiles that include “Religious Liberty” or “American Values” or “Jesus Wants This,” and whatnot.
Legislators are banking that most citizens are easily deceived.
In most cases, that’s been a pretty good strategy.
How it came to be that House Bill 1048 was not embellished with such a name is a mystery. It’s certainly stupid and harmful enough to have qualified for that treatment.
That’s why HB-1048’s title is so remarkable: The Incumbent Protection Act.
The title is probably the only thing honest about this legislation, which was signed into law Wednesday.
It is, as the title clearly indicates, an effort to give incumbents an advantage over anyone with the temerity to challenge a sitting state, district or county office-holder by cutting the time allowed for candidates to qualify for office in half.
Until now, candidates for those offices from January 1 to March 1 to qualify. Now, candidates will have just one month to qualify.
That might seem to some a change of little consequence. It certainly didn’t get much media attention nor was the matter hotly contested — it was adopted by a voice vote in the Senate and sailed through the House by a 115-1 vote.
But this law is not some minor tweak. It represents a real assault on a fair election process.
When a person decides to run for office, especially state-wide races that require a candidate to make serious evaluations of things like campaign funding, endorsements, support from state political parties and myriad other considerations, having such a short period of time to resolve those questions can be difficult.
But even if you are inclined to dismiss what harm it might do to a challenger, consider another question: What benefit can there be from cutting the qualifying time in half? Do we really want to make it harder for people to run for these offices? Why?
A lot of the impetus for this legislation goes back a few years ago when the state Democratic Party didn’t announce its slate of candidates for state-wide races until March 1. Previously, both parties had announced candidates as they trickled in in January and February.
No doubt, it was a bit of political gamesmanship by the Democrats. The state Republican Party stewed over their inability to organize their funding of candidates, not knowing which seats would be contested until the last possible moment.
But that was no more than an inconvenience.
This law does real harm to the legislative process.
Why is that?
It’s because of how the Legislature operates. The legislative session runs from the first week of January through the end of March, sometimes leaking into April. Commonly, the toughest, most controversial bills are taken up in March as the session nears its end.
Advantage incumbents. If an incumbent knows he doesn’t have a challenger when the session begins to heat up, he’s less likely to vote in a way that he perceives will make him vulnerable to a challenger who may have a different opinion of the legislation in question. And if citizens don’t like how he votes, they have no alternative at the polls. They can pound sand for all they care.
The Incumbent Protection Act is exactly what its name suggests.
It puts a finger on the scales for the status quo of both parties.
The honesty of the bill ends at the title.
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]