Decision 2019–Day 1 of Louisiana Early Voting – Thanks,Coach O!

In person early voting is now underway for the 2019 statewide elections in Louisiana and will continue until next Saturday, October 5 (after which, mail in absentee ballots will be accepted for another week). What did yesterday’s early vote tell us ?

Near record early voting turnout, but……

Twice in recent election cycles, examining the first day early voting numbers has been a real eye opener: (1) the 2016 Presidential election (where an record 531,555 ultimately early voted), and (2) the 2018 “low wattage” (for Louisiana) midterm elections (315,773 ultimately early voted). As of last night, 77,059 voted early – the second highest first day early voting turnout EVER (the record so far was an 87,066 first day early voting turnout for President in 2016). Furthermore, this number is more than double the 37,611 who early voted on the first day in the 2015 statewide elections.

Louisianians are gradually 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, 15%/292,213 early voted – a record at that time. That record was topped again in 2012 (18%/355,676 early voted), and in 2016 (26%/531,555 early voted). And since the 2015 statewide primary, the “new normal” has consistently been above 20% voting early – an average of 23% have early voted in statewide elections between October 2015 and December 2018.

So with turnout more than double the 2015 numbers, is this a harbinger of high October 12 turnout reminiscent of the (Edwin) Edwards/Duke (1991) and Edwards/Treen (1983) races ? In JMC’s opinion, the answer is an almost unequivocal “no” for the following two reasons:

  • In 2017, the Secretary of State for the first time began to send 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 even starts, those cumulative mail in ballot numbers “spike” 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 22% in the 2015 statewide primary election. Starting in the 2017 statewide primary, mail as a proportion of the total first day vote spiked to 62%, and was 42% in the 2018 primary – it was, however, a more normal 27% last night;
  • A second reason (which in JMC’s opinion is the more salient reason) for the early voting turnout spike is one that is part and parcel of Louisiana culture: LSU is having a home football game against the University of Florida on October 12 (the day of the primary), and because of the potential for this game to be in the afternoon, that scheduling has the likelihood to wreak havoc on Election Day turnout, given the limited time to vote either before or after the game. This reality was obviously successfully communicated to voters: in person voting (i.e., excluding mail in ballots from consideration) jumped from 29,419 in 2015 to 56,545 yesterday. So while total early voting turnout was 105% higher than it was in 2015, the spike was even more pronounced in the Baton Rouge area (which would be the epicenter of turnout disruptions): turnout in East Baton Rouge and the surrounding parishes was up 179% (and an even higher 244% in East Baton Rouge and 226% in Ascension Parish), while in the remaining 55 parishes, first day early voting turnout was up 92%. So in a sense, LSU football has done what party operatives have repeatedly tried to do with varying levels of success: create a turnout surge.

Lagging Democratic enthusiasm

An ongoing (and elastic) variable when assessing the impact of early voting on the composition of the primary/runoff electorate is the racial and partisan composition of the electorate, since Louisiana has party registration and tracks a person’s race on his/her voter registration card. In the 2015 primary, first day early voting was 37,611, with a racial composition of 69-29% white/black and 52-34% Democrat/Republican. As of last night, the 77,059 who early voted were 72-25% white/black and 44-42% Democrat/Republican. In other words, an electorate that is 4-8% more conservative than in 2015. This diluted Democratic voting strength matters very much when Governor Edwards is seeking to win without a runoff on October 12. To illustrate how important, had the recently released poll numbers from JMC (seen here) used the racial/party composition of the first day early voting numbers, an Edwards lead of 48-22-20% over Rispone and Abraham would become 45-24-22% Edwards/Rispone/Abraham.

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 heavier on Saturdays than on weekdays.

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 more than 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 in 2017 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 a bit), JMC is of the initial opinion that there will be more “front loading” in the early vote relative to October 12 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: 357K
  • Projected turnout volume: 1190K
  • Projected turnout percentage: 40%

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 eight times in a row (the 2015 primary, 2015 runoff, 2016 Presidential elections, December 2016 runoff, October 2017 primary, November 2017 runoff, November 2018 primary, and December 2018 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.