Ever since early voting was established in Louisiana over 15 years ago, it has steadily become an accepted method of voting. The coronavirus pandemic added a nuance to the “accepted method of voting”, as mail in voting has seen a surge in popularity that has not returned to pre-2020 levels. So, what did the first day of early voting tell us this year, with a U.S. Senate and five U.S. House races (Republican Mike Johnson was unopposed) at the top of the ballot?
“Red” voter turnout
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. This time (with it not being a Presidential election year), first day has to settle for the designation of “vice superlative.” – the 108,938 who voted early as of last night was second only to the 174,533 who early voted in the 2020 Presidential election.
However, a closer examination of the data reveals that the turnout numbers may or may not foretell a high turnout on November 8: 67% (or 73,073) of those early voters were mail in voters (THAT mail volume was the second highest mail turnout ever). And since mail has had some time to accumulate before totals were posted this morning, we’re getting a distorted vote number (i.e., one day of in person early voting versus over a month of mail coming in).
The in person number itself was a relatively mediocre 35,865. Not only is it much lower than first day early voting in 2020 (when 79,519 in person early voted), it’s even lower than the 56,545 who in person early voted for the 2019 statewide primary. About the closest we can find to this recent first day volume was the 2018 primary, when 40,030 voted in person – interestingly enough, that election cycle (which had Secretary of State special election as its marquee race) produced a 51% voter turnout due to a strong Election Day vote. Bottom line: let’s see what in person voting does for the next few days, as turnout estimates have historically had less statistical deviation after a few days of in person early voting.
Unlike previous “opening days” for early voting, this early voting electorate was more heavily Republican: the racial breakdown was 73-24% white/black and 47-40% Democrat/Republican. In a state where voter registration is 31% black, a 24% black electorate is below normal voting performance – in fact, in the 21 election cycles compiled, only three times has the first day had a lower black percentage: November 2010, December 2016, and November 2017 – the first two examples, incidentally, were election cycles in which the Republican Senate candidate (David Vitter in 2010, John Kennedy in 2016) ultimately won overwhelmingly.
Similarly, in a state where voter registration is 39-33% Democratic/Republican, a 47-40% Democratic/Republican electorate is not impressive for the Democrats.
Louisianians are gradually becoming more comfortable with voting before Election Day: the percentage of those voting before election day has steadily increased from 11% in 2007 to 46% in the 2020 Presidential election. Even in last year’s statewide amendment election, 35% chose to vote before election day, and our current estimate is that it will be 35% this year.
So does this high first day turnout point to a similarly high November 8 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. Not to mention that posting an accumulated volume of mail distorts the first day volume.
Mailing it in – again
Historically, the mail in component of early voting has been an insubstantial component of the total vote cast before Election Day. That changed in 2020, as the pandemic changed people’s voting habits, and mail in voting was 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. Since then (in statewide election cycles between July 2020 and November 2021), mail has made up (with the lone exception of the 2020 Presidential election) between 49-62% of the total early vote. Given that we START early voting with 67% of the total early vote cast by mail, this will be an interesting test of whether voting behavior with regards to mail voting versus in person early voting has returned to pre pandemic levels.
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 in 2020, with the almost overnight shift to mail in voting seeming to have had some lasting impact.
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 first day projections WILL change as additional data comes in):
- Early voting as a percentage of the final vote will likely go from 21% (in 2018) to at least 35% of the total;
- Projected early + absentee/mail vote: 363K
- Projected turnout volume/percentage: 1037K/34%
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 consistently since October 2015 exceeded 20% of the total vote. A candidate/incumbent 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.