Turnout matters – how Baton Rouge voters passed a tax increase

Turnout and intensity matter in elections. That’s the best way to explain how Baton Rouge voters, who both in 2009 and 2010 defeated proposed tax increases, passed a 10 mill property tax increase for the bus system (known locally as CATS) on the second attempt (an attempt to raise taxes to support the bus system narrowly failed in 2010).

What changed? Before putting the CATS tax on the ballot again, those backing the tax changed the boundaries of the taxing district. In other words, the parish wide electorate that defeated those two tax increases was whittled down to include only the city limits of Baton Rouge, Baker, and Zachary. Those in unincorporated areas or in Central (who were the most virulently anti-tax) were not included in the taxing district for the CATS tax.

There was an additional stipulation on top of the revised district boundaries: the success or failure of the tax depended solely on how those living in the city limits of Baton Rouge would vote on the measure – the vote totals in Baker and Zachary were separately counted.

Because of this redefinition, the chance of the tax passing improved substantially: while East Baton Rouge Parish as a whole rejected the first attempt in 2010 to pass the CATS 47-53%, those living in the city limits of Baton Rouge voted 58-42% for the tax. Similarly, a proposed tax increase in 2009 to fund infrastructure and other items (also known as “the bond issue”) was defeated 36-64% parish wide, while in the city limits of Baton Rouge, the defeat was a much narrower 53-47% margin. This difference in levels of support was because the city limits of Baton Rouge contained a larger proportion of the black vote. Baton Rouge also has a growing white moderate/liberal voting bloc in areas close to LSU or downtown.

Since the bond issue failed 53-47% within the city limits of Baton Rouge, while the CATS tax passed 54-46%, we would like to use these two tax votes to explain what happened, especially since these tax votes (in Baton Rouge, anyway) were the only item on the ballot.

Even though the early vote in both cases was 40% for the tax, the early voting electorate went from 21 to 26% black. This foretold higher black turnout on Election Day, when those favoring the tax aggressively sought to turn out their vote, and they succeeded both in turnout and in intensity. While white turnout for both elections was about 33%, black turnout increased from 15 to about 23%. Combine that with the fact that the black support increased from 68% for the bond vote to a near unanimous 88% for the CATS tax.

We believe that the source of this increased turnout intensity was the fact that many (although certainly not all) of the black neighborhoods in Baton Rouge are lower income and are more dependent on the bus system for transportation.

Curiously, white support for the CATS tax decreased relative to the bond vote from 39 to 32%, but this was not enough to offset the 20% increase in black support for the CATS tax.

Below is a map graphically showing the different regions within the city of Baton Rouge. The area in blue is where the CATS tax enjoyed near unanimous support.

Regions of Baton Rouge

What does this vote mean? On issues that are important to the black community, there is a pro tax majority in the city limits of Baton Rouge if a near unanimous black vote can be combined with a substantial number of white voters within parts of the city limits who are favorably predisposed towards new taxes. However, this “tax coalition” evaporates if those living outside the city limits of Baton Rouge are included in the electorate. It is now within these parameters that future tax battles will be fought.