Decision 2018 – (First Day of) Early Voting in Louisiana

In person early voting is now underway for the 2018 midterm elections in Louisiana and will continue until next Tuesday, October 30 (after which, mail in absentee ballots will be accepted for another week). What did yesterday’s early vote tell us ?

High early voting turnout, but……

Only two times have examining the first day’s early voting been a real eye opener: (1) the 2016 Presidential election (where an record 531,555 ultimately voted), and (2) yesterday’s early voting numbers. With only a special election for Secretary of State and the Congressional races at the top of the ballot (i.e, Louisiana hasn’t had the Senate race missing from the midterm ballot since 2006), all the prognosticators said that turnout would be abysmally low. However, due to a heightened level of interest in the midterm elections across the county from both sides of the partisan aisle, some of that interest has obviously entered the electoral consciousness of Louisiana voters, and it almost certainly contributed to yesterday’s turnout numbers.

Slowly but surely, Louisianians are becoming more comfortable with the idea of voting before Election Day: the first Presidential election where early voting was available was in 2008, and at that time, a (then) record of 34,498 early voted on the first day. The record was broken again in the 2012 Presidential election, when first day turnout was 54,989. That record was shattered a third time in 2016, when 87,066 ballots were counted on the first day.

Last night, that number was 69,035 (73-25% white/black and 46-40% Democrat/Republican), but before we (prematurely) celebrate Louisianians’ newfound love of midterm voting, let’s put things in perspective. Last year for the first time, the Secretary of State sent out absentee/mail in ballots automatically to those 65 years old or over. Given that some people vote their mail in ballot when they receive it before in person early voting starts, those cumulative mail in ballot numbers “spiked” the first day early voting numbers.

To illustrate, in the 2016, 26% of the first day balloting consisted of mail in ballots, while it was 12% in the 2016 Senate runoff. Starting with the Treasurer’s race, mail as a proportion of the total first day vote spiked to 62%, and it was a noticeably higher 42% yesterday. In practical terms, that means that (1) you have a “new normal” of increased mail in ballot volume, and (2) mail in ballots are now being sent back (and counted) earlier during the early voting cycle, since a literal examination of this data (without understanding the previously mentioned context) would lead a casual reader of the data to believe that the volume of mail in balloting counted on the first day is 957% higher than it was for the 2016 Senate runoff – and NO ONE (including JMC) seriously believes that final turnout will spike that much relative to the 2016 Senate runoff.

Yesterday’s top three early voting parishes were East Baton Rouge (6,263 early votes), St Tammany (5,521), and Orleans (4,972).

Moderate Democratic enthusiasm

Enhanced Democratic enthusiasm in the 2012 (when Barack Obama was on the ballot), 2014 (when Mary Landrieu was on the ballot), and 2015 election cycles (when John Bel Edwards sought to return the Governor’s chair to the Democrats after eight years of Republican control) made it seem like Louisiana was entering a period of elevated Democratic turnout. Similarly, in primaries across the country this year, Democratic turnout (relative to 2014) increased 77%, while Republican turnout increased 25%.

Louisiana, however, has not lost its enthusiasm about President Trump, and in 2016, black early voting turnout as a percentage of the electorate was two percentage points lower than it was in 2012 (going from 29 to 27%). It further tumbled to 19% on the first day of the 2016 Senate runoff. Given that context, the fact that blacks made up 25% of first day early voting turnout was relatively mild considering that they represent 31% of the statewide electorate. Similarly, Democrats had a mild 46-40% edge over Republicans after the first day of early voting (it was 54-33% Democratic in 2014 and 44-41% Republican in the 2016 Senate runoff).

It will be interesting to see whether more Democrats early vote throughout the week after a weak start; in JMC’s experience, Democratic early voting tends to be the heaviest on Saturdays – which this year will be the third to last day of early voting.

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, even considering that his predictive model got slightly more complex last year with mail in ballots’ starting to be automatically being mailed out to those 65 years old or over

Therefore (particularly considering the “spike” in mail in ballots that artificially inflated the numbers), JMC is of the initial opinion that there will be more “front loading” in the early vote relative to November 6 turnout, and that it’s entirely possible that the previous record (set in the 2016 Presidential election) of 26% of the vote being cast before Election Day may approach 30% this year. 

With that said, these are JMC’s first day projections:

  • Projected early/absentee vote: 275K
  • Projected turnout volume: 910K
  • Projected turnout percentage: 31%

In Conclusion

Why does early voting matter? When the Legislature essentially established “no fault” early voting more than a decade ago, you now have a noticeable constituency of people who prefer the convenience of early voting, and this constituency has for six times in a row (the 2015 primary, 2015 runoff, 2016 Presidential elections, December 2016 runoff, October 2017 primary, and November 2017 runoff) exceeded 20%. 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.