Decision 2019 – Conclusion of in person early voting in Louisiana

In person early voting concluded last night (mail in absentees can still be accepted up to the day before Election Day), and it broke some records. What did early voting this year tell us?

Strong turnout

As of last night, 374,190 Louisianians either early voted by person or by mail in ballot (340,480 in person, and 33,710 mail in ballots). To put this number in perspective, this is the highest early voting turnout EVER for a non-Presidential election, and is the second highest early voting turnout EVER (only the 2016 Presidential election has seen a higher in person + absentee voting turnout with 531,555 early votes).

What is especially impressive about this 374K figure is that Democrats are only seriously contesting the Governor’s race (they have an incumbent to protect), while no top tier candidates emerged in any of the other statewide races.

Why has turnout been so high ? Given that the 374K is 59% higher than the 235K who early voted in the 2015 statewide election cycle, JMC believes that external factors are present. Last year, reports of strong early voting across the country (and, to some extent, energized conservatives after the Kavanaugh hearings) created a 315K turnout in an otherwise sleepy election cycle here. This time, the thought is that Democrats’ actions towards impeaching President Trump (in a state where he still remains fairly popular) have energized conservative voters: compared to 2015, Republican turnout volume is up 84%, while Independent turnout is up 80% and Democratic turnout is up 36%.

Democrats’ strong finish

Whatever the turnout levels are from election cycle to election cycle, there is one constant when it comes to early voting in Louisiana: blacks/Democrats tend to show up in greater numbers on the last day. So despite the fact that for the six days in a row the early voting electorate was 24% black, it surged to 32% black yesterday (blacks represent 31% of Louisiana’s registered voters). Similarly, in the 2015 primary, the electorate for the first six days was 26% black, then jumped to 32% black on the last day.

Still, despite the Democratic last day surge, the early voting electorate is 2% less black (27% in 2015 vs 25% last night) than it was four years ago. And Republicans from a percentage standpoint represent 5% more of the electorate (41% vs 36% in 2015). These numbers matter very much when Democratic Governor John Bel Edwards seeks to win re-election on October 12 without a runoff.

The top three early voting parishes were East Baton Rouge (41,297 early/absentee votes), St. Tammany (25,389), and Orleans (24,631).

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 over a decade, JMC has established (and continuously refined) benchmarks that can be used to project early voting and/or final turnout, even considering that this predictive model got slightly more complex starting in 2017 with mail in ballots’ starting to be automatically being mailed out to those 65 years old or over who opted to be on this list.

Given the above, as well as the fact that early voting shattered numerical records this election cycle, there are three “parallel universes” to JMC’s turnout projections (which consider the fact that an estimated 6-15K absentee ballots have yet to be mailed in and tallied before the Friday deadline), with one of those three being the likely outcome.

Parallel universe #1: In the 2015 primary, 21% of the total vote was cast before election day. If we want to assume that the higher early voting turnout is indicative only of a surge in Election Day turnout, a 21% early vote equates to a 61% voter turnout, or a total vote of 1.81 million. Because this is a Presidential level of turnout (Louisiana’s Presidential turnout in the last three Presidential elections was 68%, 68%, and 67%). JMC does not see this as a realistic scenario at all.

Parallel universe #2: If instead we want to assume that the higher early voting turnout is solely indicative of “front loading” of the total vote with no increase in numerical turnout relative to 2015, an estimated 380K early vote represents an early vote that is 33% of the total primary vote. Since the highest early voting percentage ever was in the 2016 Presidential election (26% of the vote was cast early), JMC does not believe it’s realistic to assume that early voting has become THAT much more popular since the 2015 election cycle. Again, not a realistic scenario at all.   

Parallel universe #3: More realistically, there will likely be a combination of higher turnout and some increased interest in early voting. In other words, an early vote representing 27% of the total vote (27% being halfway between 21 and 33%), which calculates to a total turnout of 48%, or 1.41 million voters). There is some precedent for this: in last year’s midterm, turnout surged to 51%, despite the absence of “high wattage” races at the statewide or Congressional level.

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.