Decision 2020 – Day 1 of Early Voting (Very long lines, social distancing, and record turnout)

Increasingly, Louisianians are choosing to vote before Election Day. Adding to that tendency has been the  coronavirus pandemic, as voter access both to early and mail in voting has been expanded this year. So what did the first day of early voting tell us ?

Record early voting turnout, which benefitted Democrats

In recent election cycles, examining first day early voting numbers has been an exercise in superlatives, both in terms of turnout volume and the composition of the early vote: (1) the 87,066 who early voted before Election Day in 2016 was soon eclipsed by the 89,623 who early voted for the 2019 runoffs, and a similar argument could be made that the November 2018 primary first day turnout of 69,035 was newsworthy because it was in an otherwise “low wattage” election cycle.

Now we have a “new new record’ first day turnout – yesterday, 174,533 early voted, which was double the first day number of 89,623 for the 2019 Governor’s runoff and the 87,066 for the 2016 Presidential election. Equally interesting was that this was only the third time ever that the first day count of mail in votes exceeded the number of those who voted in person (the other two times were the 2017 special election primary for Treasurer and the 2020 Presidential primary).

This extraordinarily high turnout benefitted Democrats, as the demographic composition of those early/mail in voting yesterday was noticeably LESS Republican than it was on the first day in 2016; in fact, the first day numbers were eerily reminiscent of the first day of the 2008 cycle that elected Barack Obama and re-elected Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu. To illustrate:

First Day Early Voting, 2008-2020 Presidential Election Cycles

Louisianians are gradually becoming more comfortable with voting before Election Day: the first Presidential election where early voting was available was in 2008, and 15%/292,213 early voted – a record at that time. That record has repeatedly been topped with each successive Presidential/statewide election cycle: first in 2012 (18%/355,676 early voted), then 2016 (26%/531,555 early voted). This trend has continued in recent statewide elections – namely the 2019 primary (28%/386,129 early voted) and runoff (33%/503,620 early voted)

So does this record first day turnout point to a record November turnout? JMC is of the opinion that high initial turnout (which almost always sustains itself throughout the entire early voting period) does benefit overall turnout, even though some of the increase in turnout cannibalizes Election Day turnout.

Mailing it in

Historically, the mail in component of early voting has been an insubstantial component of the total vote cast before Election Day. That changed this year both for the July primary and August runoff, as the pandemic has changed people’s voting habits, and mail in voting has become the clear beneficiary. More specifically, in major statewide election cycles between 2008-2019, on average, 15% of the total vote cast before Election Day was by mail, while the other 85% was in person early voting.

That dramatically changed this year: in the July primary, 39% of the total vote was cast before Election Day, and 51% of that was in person early vote (49% was mail). In the August runoff, a similar 39% of the total vote was cast before Election Day, but that August vote was (for the first time ever) 38% in person early vote/62% mail. Since yesterday’s early vote was 54% mail (compared to 26% mail on the first day in 2016), will the majority of the 2020 early vote be cast by mail ? JMC is of the opinion that because the 95,014 who voted by mail was an accumulation of several weeks of returned mail, it’s unlikely that the daily mail volume would continue to exceed in person early voting between now and Election Day.

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. An extra layer of complexity was added this year, with the almost overnight shift to mail in voting that occurred for both the July/August 2020 elections. That shift was accompanied by an expansion of the number of days (and hours/day) that early voting is available for Louisiana voters.

So when you consider (1) the “spike” in mail in ballots that artificially inflates the first day numbers, (2) the organic level of interest in mail in voting that was simply not present prior to 2020, and (3) the fact that a heavy first day early vote IS a harbinger of higher turnout (even with some “front loading” of the numbers factored in), JMC sees the following as initial turnout projections (Note: these are first day projections that WILL change as additional data comes in):

  • Early voting as a percentage of the final vote will likely go from 26% (in 2016) to at least 35% of the total;
  • Projected early + absentee/mail vote: 795K
  • Projected turnout volume: 2270K
  • Projected turnout percentage: 74%

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 twelve times in a row (the 2015 primary, 2015 runoff, 2016 Presidential elections, December 2016 runoff, October 2017 primary, November 2017 runoff, November 2018 primary, December 2018 runoff, October 2019 primary, 2019 runoff, 2020 primary, and 2020 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, although given the heavy expected volume of mail in voting this year, that early reporting may or may not happen.