Ever since its introduction nearly 15 years ago, Louisianians are increasingly 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 have eight days of early voting told us ?
Continued record early voting turnout, and Democrats benefit
Throughout the early voting period for the November 2020 elections, early voting has broken turnout records every day – this past Thursday, the previous all-time record of 531,555 in person+mail voters from the 2016 Presidential election was shattered. Since then, daily early voting volume has been noticeably heavier than it was four years ago; as of last night, 761,215 early voted (624,969 in person, and 136,246 by mail). Not only has the volume of early voters been setting daily records, but early voting turnout itself has been noticeably and consistently more Democratic: in 2016, the racial composition of the early vote was 70-27% white/black and 45-39% Democratic/Republican. As of last night, the racial breakdown was 65-30% white/black and 45-37% Democratic/Republican.
Furthermore, in JMC’s experience, the last few days of early voting (especially Saturday and this upcoming Tuesday) trend even more Democratic. To illustrate, in 2016, the first few days of early voting were 71.5-25% white/black; from Saturday until the conclusion of early voting, the racial breakdown increased to 67-29% white/black. This year, the racial breakdown before yesterday has been 66-30% white/black; yesterday, it increased to 62-33% white/black. JMC would not be surprised to see a similar 62-33% white/black racial breakdown for both tomorrow and Tuesday’s early voting (compared to 67-29% in 2016 – for proper context, November 2016 overall early voting was 70-27% white/black).
To put both current and previous Presidential election year early voting in proper perspective; below is a table showing the racial and partisan composition of the early voters – keep in mind that we still have two more days of early voting tomorrow and Tuesday, while mail in ballots can still come in before November 2 (November 3 for overseas/military voters).
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 a heavy early voting turnout does incrementally benefit overall turnout, even though some of the increase in early voting turnout is a “front loading” of 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. And while the first day of early voting for the November election was 54% mail, that was the result of an accumulation of several weeks of returned mail. JMC was of the opinion that the percentage of the vote cast by mail in ballots would drop off after that first day “spike”, and it did – mail currently represents 18% of the 761K who have early voted so far. Still, the 136K who have voted by mail so far is more than double the 63K who voted by mail in 2016, and mail in ballots still have a week to come in.
JMC’s projections of early voting volume and overall turnout – are ONE MILLION early votes possible?
Projecting turnout is a constantly moving target throughout early voting week (which for the November 2020 elections is “early voting 10 days”), 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 the following: (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, (3) the fact that there has been sustained heavy turnout for the first 8 days of early voting, (4) there are two more days of in person early voting remaining, and (5) the fact that mail in ballots can come in for another week, JMC sees the following as current turnout projections:
- Early voting as a percentage of the final vote will likely go from 26% (in 2016) to at least 45% of the total;
- Projected early + absentee/mail vote: 980K
- Projected turnout volume: 2203K
- Projected turnout percentage: 72%
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.