Turnout and why it matters

One of the most misunderstood areas of election analysis is the impact that turnout intensity (or lack thereof) can have on a race. For Louisiana elections, turnout intensity is most noticeable when you look at the extent to which whites and blacks vote. One of the oldest truisms in Louisiana electoral politics is that whites turn out proportionately more than blacks do. In this article, we would like to use examples both at the statewide and legislative level to illustrate how this truism impacts (or can impact) elections.

Statewide Example

Senator Mary Landrieu is certainly aware of the impact of black voter turnout. In her 2002 and 2008 re-election races, she received the same 52% of the vote. What was not given much press was that her share of the vote declined in 39 of Louisiana’s 64 parishes (last year, we did a full analysis of the 2008 race). Normally, running behind your prior showing in the majority of Louisiana’s parishes is deadly, but in her situation, an increase in minority turnout between 2002 and 2008 offset the decline in her strength. What happened was that the 2002 electorate was 27% black, while the 2008 electorate was 30% black. This 3% increase was due to the intense minority turnout generated by the presidential candidacy of Barack Obama, who shared the November 2008 ballot with Senator Landrieu.

Legislative Examples

At the legislative level, minority turnout not only can affect the impact of a partisan race, but it can also determine if a black can get elected to a “black majority” district. In fact, those hoping that the creation of 40 (29 in the House and 11 in the Senate) black majority districts during the reapportionment session will be disappointed if they think that there will be 40 black legislators when the Legislature convenes in January.

One of the causes of this disappointment is the electoral reality we mentioned earlier: because blacks typically turn out at a lower intensity than whites do in elections, in some legislative districts, less than 50% of those who show up on Election Day are black. In fact, if you look at the voter turnout in the 2010 Senate race, only 36 districts (26 in the House and 10 in the Senate) were black majority, if you look at those who voted. If you were to use the 2007 governor’s race as your yardstick, the figures with regards to black majority representation are even more discouraging: only 29 districts (22 in the House and 7 in the Senate) were black majority with Election Day voters.

There is another reason that there will almost certainly NOT be 40 black legislators next year: just because a district has a black majority doesn’t mean that race is the only consideration as to how someone will vote – there are currently 9 instances (7 in the House and 2 in the Senate) where a black majority district has a white representative/senator.

So what do we think minority representation will be after the 2011 elections? Looking at the demographics/turnout history of all 144 districts, as well as the race of those who qualified, we see that of the 40 theoretically “majority minority” districts, 28 (20 in the House and 8 in the Senate) are almost certain to elect a black. Another 8 (6 in the House and 2 in the Senate) are almost certain to elect a white. The remaining four districts (3 in the House and 1 in the Senate) are up in the air, because the extent of black turnout and/over racial polarization will determine how those districts will vote this fall.

2011 turnout

If you look at the above statistics through the prism of projected turnout this year, we think that in general, turnout will be less than the 47% it was in 2007, because of the lack of significant partisan competition at the statewide level. How low can turnout go? One clue will be provided after the conclusion of early voting – you may recall that several years ago, the Louisiana Legislature made it easier to absentee vote, and the 2007 elections were the first time that early voting was deployed on a major statewide election. In that year, you had 139,000 (about 10% of the total) early vote, and the racial composition of the early voters was 83-16% white. With this yardstick, as the 2011 early vote is being cast, we can measure it against the 2007 figures to get an idea as to what we think the 2011 primary numbers will be. In person early voting starts in less than two weeks, and lasts for a week. Traditional absenteesing(i.e. mail in ballots) are still accepted for a week after that.