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 twist to HOW people voted before Election Day, with mail in voting becoming a “third actor” in addition to in person early voting and traditional Election Day voting. Now that we’ve been through all but two days of early voting (in person early voting in Louisiana concludes on Tuesday November 1), what do the numbers tell us?
“Crawfish red” voter turnout
Traditionally, Democrats have been able to get out their vote during early voting week ever since the 2008 election cycle, when both Barack Obama and Senator Mary Landrieu were on the ballot. Despite John McCain’s carrying the state 59-40% that year (and Mary Landrieu’s eking out a 52-46% win over then Treasurer John Kennedy), the early vote (which that year was an astronomically high 35% black) went only 52.5-46% for McCain, while Landrieu carried the early vote 56-42%.
Ever since then, the strength of the black vote (as a percentage of the total early vote) during early voting week has been used as a measure of Democratic intensity: while Republicans have carried the state in Presidential elections when blacks made up at least 30% of the early vote (the registered voter electorate is 31% black), Democrats HAVE to get a black early vote of at least 30% if they want to win. Not only was former Senator Mary Landrieu re-elected in 2008 with a 35% black early voter electorate, but in the December 2014 runoff, she lost by a wide margin, and it certainly didn’t help that the black early voting electorate dropped to a more normal 28% (it was 32% in the primary).
Similarly, John Bel Edwards was elected Governor in November 2015 with a 30% black early voting electorate and re-elected in November 2019 when the black early voting electorate was 31%. However, when black voter intensity wasn’t as strong (it was 25%) in the October 2019 primary, he was forced into a runoff.
But while a 30% black early voting electorate is vital for Democrats, if the black percent of the early vote slips below 25%, Republicans have won substantially: former Senator David Vitter was re-elected in November 2010 when the black early voting electorate was 21%. In October 2011, Governor Bobby Jindal was re-elected with a 22% black early voting electorate, while in the December 2016 runoff that saw John Kennedy get elected in a landslide, the black early voting electorate was 24%.
Given that context, after five days of in person early voting, 24% of the early vote as of Saturday night was black. The only other races where black turnout was that low after the 5th day was in November 2010, December 2016, and October 2019.
In addition to the below average black turnout, it’s also noteworthy that for the first time ever, Republicans actually have a cumulative plurality of the early vote after five days of early voting (44-42% Republican/Democrat). The only other times after five days that Republicans have had this strong of an early vote were in 2010 (46-44% Democrat/Republican), December 2016 (44-43% Democrat/Republican), and October 2019 (43-42% Democrat/Republican).
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 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.
After 5 days of early voting, mail makes up 32% of the total early vote, which is (after five days) the highest percentage ever of the total early vote coming from mail. And after five days, it looks like the 2019 statewide primary is a valid comparison in terms of racial and partisan mixture (261,886 total early vote that is 44-42% Republican/Democrat and 24% black; in October 2019. 253,197 had early voted, with a demographic mixture that was 43-42% Democrat/Republican and 24% black), but the mail and in person components have substantially different volumes: compared to the 2019 race, mail is 179% higher, while in person early voting was 20% lower. What also makes the 2019 primary race a good basis of comparison is that statewide turnout was 46%, which we see as a reasonable benchmark to apply to the 2022 midterm election.
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 inflated the first day numbers, (2) an organic level of interest in mail in voting that was simply not present prior to 2020, and (3) a not very substantial in person early vote for the first five days (about 40K in person early voted each day in 2019, while it’s been about 35K/day this year), JMC can now make a refined turnout projections with more information available:
- A projected total early vote of 360K (252K in person, 108K from mail) – this would be the 3rd highest midterm turnout ever (the 2019 runoff/primary remain in 1st and 2nd place);
- A total vote of 1.41 million, which equates to a 47% turnout – the 2019 turnout was 46%, while this year’s EV turnout is 3% higher than that of 2019;
- The early vote will make up a projected 25% of the total vote. Which would (other than 2019) be the highest percentage of early vote cast in a non Presidential election cycle.
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.