It would not be an exaggeration to say that the coronavirus pandemic has been a disruptive event. Not only in terms of its widespread impact on people’s lives, but to entire industries as well. It has also (in an instant) reshaped the way that elections are being conducted.
Louisiana’s 2020 Presidential Primary is yet another “Exhibit A” of this disruption. Because unlike previous Presidential primaries, not only has this primary been delayed twice (it was originally scheduled for April 4), but it technically was a non-event – Donald Trump is guaranteed to be the Republican nominee, and Joe Biden has the delegates he needs to receive the Democratic nomination, although technically the race came to a rapid conclusion in March, after his dominance of “Super Tuesday” primary contests essentially reduced Bernie Sanders to a sideshow.
Yet first day turnout was off the charts for a Presidential primary that also had some local races in various parishes accompanying the Presidential contest on the ballot. What are the main takeaways from the first day of early voting ?
Record early voting turnout
To put yesterday’s numbers in perspective, previous Louisiana Presidential primaries occurred when “primary season” was still active. But thanks to the pandemic, this primary date was pushed back twice – from April 4 ultimately to July 11. Yet when comparing first day turnout for this and the previous two Presidential primary contests, those caveats didn’t matter in terms of voter interest. In 2012 (with only a seriously contested Republican primary), first day early voting was 10,578. Both parties had contested primaries in 2016, and turnout on the first day appropriately nearly doubled to 18,892. Last night’s turnout was much higher than that – 58,282, which is the 5th highest first day turnout EVER going back to 2008.
When examining the composition of first day early voting turnout, it’s clear what happened. In person early voting was relatively healthy – 10,207, or just under the 11,530 figure for 2016 but double the 5,280 number for 2012. But (and this has been the major “game changer” throughout the pandemic) mail in balloting reached record levels: while 5,298 voted by mail on the first day of the 2012 Presidential primary and 7,362 did for 2016, it was a record 48,075 as of yesterday. In fact, this is the highest first day mail in volume going all the way back to 2008, and the fact that 82% of the first day’s early vote came from mail in ballots was similarly unprecedented. Furthermore, only the entire early voting period for the 2016 Presidential election and 2019 Governor’s runoff has ever seen mail in balloting that high.
Partisan benefit to high turnout
Who benefited from this high (and mail driven) early vote ? Surprisingly, the racial and partisan numbers were similar to the first day of both the 2012 and 2016 Presidential contests: the racial composition was 69-29% white/black both in 2012 and 2016, and was 68-30% white/black as of yesterday. Similarly, the partisan composition of the first day early vote was 54-41% Democrat/Republican in 2012, 54-44% Democrat/Republican in 2016, and 55-40% Democrat/Republican as of yesterday. In other words, a slight Democratic tilt when compared to previous primaries, but nothing more than that.
Why does this matter?
Even though the November election is more than four months away (although early voting for that election starts on October 20), the high initial turnout (even allowing for the fact that mail in ballots have been coming in for several months now) signifies a high level of organic enthusiasm for the November elections.
There is a second aspect to yesterday’s numbers: for mail in voting to surge as much as it did relative to previous election cycles means that people are choosing their level of comfort (or lack thereof) with in person (or even Election Day) voting, and candidates would be wise to note this abrupt change in political “consumer behavior”. Which means that “getting out the vote” being an Election Day only exercise is now a dangerously archaic way of thinking.
A third aspect to this – and a cautionary note both here in Louisiana and across America is appropriate – because of the greater level of manual processing required for mail in ballots (which have to be individually opened), it’s entirely possible (depending, of course, on the eventual mail ballot volume) that Louisiana will not have all of its votes counted fairly quickly, as mail ins are normally a nominal (as in, less than 5%) of the total vote volume on Election Day.