Decision 2024 – Day 1 of Early Voting (Is mail in voting “a thing” now ?)

Ever since early voting was established in Louisiana nearly 20 years ago, it has steadily become an accepted method of voting, and it has reshuffled existing assumptions about how to plan “get out the vote” activities. The coronavirus pandemic of 2020-2022 added a nuance to the “accepted method of voting”, however, as mail in voting has seen a surge in popularity that has not returned to pre-2020 levels. So, what did yesterday’s early voting tell us, despite a Presidential contest that is essentially on autopilot ?

Louisianians “mail it in” – again

Historically, the mail in component of early voting was an insubstantial component of the total vote cast before Election Day. That changed starting 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 2023), mail has on average made up 33% of the total pre-election day vote. And if you were to take out major statewide elections, like the 2020 Presidential/2022 Senate/2023 statewide primary/2023 statewide runoffs, that percentage of the total early vote coming from mail ballots further jumps to 53% – in other words, mail is becoming relatively more important, but it’s still a limited universe that is less substantial if there is a medium to a high statewide voter turnout.

However, that’s what makes this year’s statewide primaries/Presidential contest interesting: the Presidential race is essentially on autopilot, yet mail in volume was 17% higher than it was on the first day in 2020, and in fact was the third highest mail volume ever – only behind the November 2020 Presidential race and the 2022 Senate primary. In other words, it looks like mail is here to stay as a statistically significant – though not dominant – component of how Louisianians cast their vote.

Respectable early voting turnout

Total first day turnout from early voting was 75,615 (56,274 by mail and 19,341 in person). When compared against the first day of early voting in 2020, 58,282 early voted back then (48,075 by mail and 10,207 in person), while in 2016, the first day numbers for the Presidential/spring primary were 18,892 (7,362 mail and 11,530 in person). When you consider that (using “apples to apples”) in person early voting jumped by 89% relative to 2020 (while mail, as mentioned before, increased 17%), that turnout increase is worth noting.

It’s easy to assume that hot local races are driving turnout, but an analysis of parish-by-parish data for first day early voting in 2020 and 2024 shows that’s not the case. In fact, it could be argued that party committee races as well as local races (like a rerun Sheriff’s race in Caddo, the Monroe Mayor’s race, as well as scattered judicial/DA races across the state) are in the aggregate driving turnout, we the chart below shows:

Democratic friendly voter turnout, but….

When examining the first day turnout, it would appear that the numbers are friendly towards the Democrats: the racial breakdown was 68-30% white/black and 50-44% Democratic/Republican. And when compared against the 2020 primary, the racial breakdown was identical (68-30% white/black), but the early voting electorate in 2020 was more Democratic (55-40% Democratic/Republican).

A couple of caveats need to be discussed, however: (1) this is first day analysis, which means the only available data is a combination of accumulated mail ballots and one day’s worth of in person early voting, and (2) Because the Presidential race was at the top of the ballot, Independents can’t vote (Louisiana has a closed primary for President), so that substantially tilts the scale towards two party only turnout – the March 2024 numbers from the Secretary of State show that Democrats have a 38-34% voter registration plurality, while 27% are third party/Independent.

Let’s further discuss the “front loading” of the mail in vote: in the 2020 Presidential primary, roughly half of all mail in ballots were turned in by the first day (as opposed to 10% of in person early votes), as ballots are mailed out several weeks before in person early voting begins, and that creates an accumulation of mail that is counted/posted on that first day. And like other states, mail in voting is more Democratic than in person early voting is: as of last night, mail in ballots were 54-41% Democratic/Republican, while the in person voting component was 53-39% Republican/Democratic.

So while the front loading of mail voting inflates the Democratic numbers on the first day, as time goes on, in person early voting is the dominant method of voting (about 80% of the total voting in 2020 after the first day was in person voting), and that dominance benefits Republicans more.

JMC’s turnout estimate

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 (post pandemic) statewide amendment election, 34% chose to vote before election day in the primary, while 39% did in the runoff.

So does this high (for a Presidential contest) first day turnout point to a similarly high March 23 turnout? JMC is of the opinion that a 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 is a cannibalization of Election Day turnout. Not to mention that posting an accumulated volume of mail in one day distorts the first day volume.

Projecting turnout is a constantly moving target throughout early voting week, but since early voting has been in existence in Louisiana for nearly two decades, 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 residual 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 39% (in 2020) to at least 35% of the total (note: in 2020, extra days of early voting were added, and the rules on who could vote by mail were relaxed, so 2020 is not a typical case);
  • Projected early + absentee/mail vote: 204-318K
  • Projected turnout volume/percentage: between 584-1272K/20-43% (as more data is available, that range will tighten, although we suspect the “true turnout” number will be at the lower end of the range).

In Conclusion

Why does early voting matter? When the Legislature essentially established “no fault” early voting nearly two decades 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.