Decision 2017 – (First two days of) Runoff Early Voting in Louisiana

In person early voting started two days ago for the November 18 runoff – due to the Veterans Day holiday’s being on an early voting date (Friday, November 10), an extra day of early voting (Friday, November 3) was added. As before, the special election for Treasurer is at the top of the ballot, as are several unsettled races in New Orleans, a state representative race in Covington for the House seat vacated by John Schroder (who resigned his seat to run for Treasurer), and a Court Judge’s race in south Baton Rouge, just to name a few items on the ballot throughout the state. In person early voting continues until Saturday, November 11.

Minimal voter enthusiasm

When Louisiana held its US Senate runoff last December, it was noteworthy that only 29% turned out to participate in this contest (which also featured a Congressional race in Acadiana and municipal runoffs in East Baton Rouge Parish). And after two days of December early voting, 44,474 early voted. This group of early voters was 78-19% white/black and 44-42% Republican/Democrat – abysmal numbers for Democrats.

The October primary painted an even bleaker picture of how low turnout could get, with 14% statewide turnout, and after two days of early voting, 37,094 early voted. This group of early voters was 74-24% white/black and 50-40% Democrat/Republican – numbers that were somewhat more Democratic, at least when compared to the abysmal Democratic turnout numbers last December.

After two days of runoff early voting, the already minimal enthusiasm of primary voters has declined even further, with 26,036 early voters, who are 71-27% white/black and 48-41% Democrat/Republican. While this is somewhat more Democratic than the primary, it’s also important to note that Saturdays (in JMC’s experience) are a day of the week when Democrats typically maximize their early voting turnout. It will be interesting to see whether the initial Democratic trend can sustain itself throughout the week.

When comparing the early voting numbers to the primary after two days of early voting, two factors are impacting the numbers: mail in ballots and the New Orleans runoff.

Mail and New Orleans

An initial glance of early voting numbers shows a 30% decline in volume relative to two days of primary early voting. However, primary early voting numbers were “spiked” by a surge of mail in ballots that were all counted on the first day. To illustrate, 22% of those voting early in last December’s runoff chose a mail in ballot. In the primary, that number jumped to 28%, and it was 52% after two days of early voting). This time, the mail in ballot volume was down 56% relative to the primary, while in person early voting (which is the majority of those who vote before Election Day) was only down 2%. In other words, while runoff early voting turnout is down, it’s JMC’s belief that the volume of in person early voting (as opposed to mail in volume) is at this point in the process a more accurate barometer of runoff early voting (and ultimately, Election Day) turnout.

New Orleans was different. While statewide early voting volume is 30% less statewide after two days of early voting, it was 1% higher in New Orleans than after two days of early voting, thus resulting in Orleans Parish representing 19% of the total statewide early vote (it was 13% after two days of early voting). This 19% figure is unusually high for a parish that typically makes up 8-10% of the statewide vote.

New Orleans has an elevated importance in this election cycle because of the timing of its municipal elections (several of which went to a runoff). Historically, its elections for Mayor, other parish wide offices, and the New Orleans City Council were held during Mardi Gras season. The timing of those elections was recently changed to the fall, and this is the first election cycle where New Orleans elections were held in conjunction with a statewide election cycle, thus giving this one parish a greater influence than it would normally have.

New Orleans impact

While Republican John Schroder (one of the two runoff contenders for the Treasurer’s race) is in a commanding position in the runoff (67% of primary voters chose a Republican candidate, while the lone Democrat (Derrick Edwards) received 31%), there has been speculation in journalistic and political circles about Edwards’ having a shot at winning the runoff, as only seven other parishes outside of Orleans have local offices on the ballot in addition to the Treasurer’s race.

Given that this speculation has been publicized in several different places without any quantitative verification of this assumption, JMC decided it was time to use actual numbers to prove or debunk this “groupthink.”

If we generously assumed that Orleans Parish sees a 20% increase in its turnout relative to the primary while the remaining 63 parishes see a 62% decrease in turnout, a combination of those two already improbable occurrences would only get Edwards up to 40% without a single vote from those who voted for Neil Riser or Angele Davis. Going even further into “what if” mode, a turnout increase of 50% in Orleans Parish and a 72% turnout decrease in the other 63 parishes would only get Edwards up to 45% without a single vote from those who voted for Neil Riser or Angele Davis. The only remotely possible combination that would get Edwards to 50% on November 18 would be a combination of all of the following: (1) 50% turnout increase in Orleans Parish, (2) 72% decrease in turnout in the other 63 parishes, (3) Edwards receiving 58% of the Riser vote in Orleans Parish (Riser invested heavily in that one, heavily Democratic parish in the primary), and (4) Edwards receiving 58% of the Davis vote in East Baton Rouge Parish (Davis had good name recognition there from her extensive state government experience, combined with the fact that East Baton Rouge Parish Republican voters are more moderate – by today’s standard).

JMC’s projections of early voting volume, overall turnout

Projecting turnout is a constantly moving target throughout early voting week, but since early voting has been in existence in Louisiana for a decade, JMC has established (and continuously refined) benchmarks that can be used to project early voting and/or final turnout.

In this case, JMC is of the initial opinion that runoff turnout will be somewhat less than it was in the primary. More specifically:

  • Projected early/absentee vote: 85-115K (97K in the October primary)
  • Projected turnout volume: 354-477K (424K in the October primary)
  • Projected turnout percentage: 12-16% (14% in the October primary)

In Conclusion

Why does early voting matter? When the Legislature essentially established “no fault” early voting a decade ago, you now have a noticeable constituency of people who prefer the convenience of early voting, and this constituency has for five times in a row (the 2015 primary, 2015 runoff, 2016 Presidential elections, December 2016 runoff, and October 2017 primary) exceeded 20% – it was 24% in the October primary. A politician would be foolish to ignore this many “up front” voters, especially in a closely contested race. Also, too, early voting numbers are the first ones that are typically reported after polls have closed at 8 PM.