Not So Special
Low turnout on Oct 14 won't just be because it's a special election. It's also because fewer and fewer people are voting in Louisiana's state elections generally.
Turnout in the State Treasurer’s race this weekend will be low. Probably terribly low. There will be much wailing and gnashing of teeth about how and why so few people bothered to show up for this special election. Indeed, it has already begun.
Special elections have notoriously low turnout. Consider the handful of statewide special elections held in Louisiana during the last two decades. In 2006, we held simultaneous special elections for Secretary of State and Commissioner of Insurance. Just 21.2 percent of the voting eligible population cast a ballot for Secretary of State. Even fewer, 18.6 percent, voted in the special election for Commissioner of Insurance – despite both races appearing together on the same ballot.
Four years later, 20.2 percent of the voting eligible population participated in the first round of a special election for Lieutenant Governor. Turnout was much higher in the runoff, when 38.8 percent of the voting eligible population participated, but the jump most likely resulted from the fact that the runoff was held on a federal election day when Louisiana had a U.S. Senate race on the ballot as well.
[Note: These turnout figures use voting eligible population in the denominator, which is a more complete measure of participation than calculations that use registered voters in the denominator. Measuring turnout among only registered voters overstates engagement because it ignores those individuals who are eligible to register but do not. Still, the turnout figures are only slightly higher when using the more generous approach: 22.4 percent in the 2006 special election for Secretary of State and 23.4 percent in the 2010 special election primary for Lieutenant Governor.]
Turnout in this year’s special election for State Treasurer will also be relatively low – indeed, it may be even lower than in 2006 or 2010 (see below).
The temptation is to write it off as merely the consequence of an off-cycle special election. Or, to chalk it up to the fact that it is as inconspicuous office that lacks the glamour of a race for governor or U.S. Senator. Or, to blame fatigue from four consecutive years of elections. Or, to blame the constant drum of distractions in the news competing for voters' attention.
All of these factors might play some role (especially the first two), but they are all in a sense too optimistic. They ignore a deeper challenge for civic participation in Louisiana - the consistent, decades-long decline in voting in state government elections.
Fewer Louisiana Voters Bother Showing Up for Any State Elections
Based on turnout figures, interest in state government among Louisiana’s electorate has seen a staggering decline in the past 30 years.
As recently as the 1980s, nearly as many Louisiana voters cast ballots in gubernatorial elections as in presidential elections (figure 1). The state was unique then. In most other states, turnout dropped significantly from presidential contests to other elections – especially when the latter are held at a different time than the presidential contest as in Louisiana.
Those days are long gone. The share of Louisiana’s voting eligible population casting ballots in presidential elections has increased slightly, but when it comes to elections for state government...my, oh my. The floor has dropped out.
In 1983, 53.6 percent of the voting eligible population voted for governor. Just 33.1 percent did so in 2015. The decline is evident across other state offices too. Nearly half of the population eligible to vote cast ballots for State Treasurer in 1987, but just 29.2 percent did so in 2015.
To be sure, turnout in this year’s special election will almost certainly be even lower because it is off-cycle, but the low turnout won’t just be because it’s a special election. It’s also because a smaller and smaller share of the electorate bothers with state government.
Early Vote Extrapolations
This year, 92,315 votes were cast during early voting (although not all of these are necessarily votes in the State Treasurer’s race). I have warned time and time again about extrapolating too much from early voting statistics, mostly because the process is relatively new in Louisiana and the relationship between early votes and total votes does not appear to have reached equilibrium. The chief challenge with using early votes to forecast total turnout is that it is not at all obvious what percent of total votes may have been cast during early voting – especially during a special election. The share has changed radically over the past decade.
For example, in the 2008 presidential election, 14.9 percent of Louisiana ballots were cast during early voting. This grew to 17.9 percent in 2012 and 26.2 percent in 2016 as more and more voters began taking advantage of early voting. In gubernatorial elections, the shares grew from 16.5 percent in 2011 to 21.1 percent in 2015. These are not indicators of an increase in overall turnout, but in the greater attraction to the convenience of early voting among individuals who are already inclined to vote.
If we average the share of early votes across the past five statewide non-presidential elections (2014 U.S. Senate primary & runoff, 2015 gubernatorial primary and runoff, and 2016 U.S. Senate runoff), the rate is 20.1 percent of ballots cast in early voting. This share has been relatively stable over those recent elections (certainly more stable than it had been over the previous elections). If this year's early votes make up about one-fifth of total votes, then the forecast is 465,292 ballots, or just 13.7 percent of the voting eligible population.
The problem with that approach is that we are assuming that the relatively stable rate of early voting in recent statewide elections for governor and U.S. Senator would hold in a less prominent special election. Alternatively, we could use the rate of early voting from the last special election in the state. The last special election saw 11.5 percent of total ballots cast during early voting. In this case, the projection would be for 806,215 total ballots cast this year, or 23.8 percent of the voting eligible population.
How is it that the election with fewer early votes forecasts a larger total electorate? It's about the rate of early voting to total voting. Early votes were a smaller share of total votes in 2010. If this year's 92,315 early votes are just 11.5 percent of all votes (the 2010 rate), then there will be something in the neighborhood of 800,000 total votes. If these early votes are just 20.1 percent of all votes (the 2015 rate), then we will end up with less than 450,000 total votes.
The problem with this second approach is that it is based on a rate from seven years ago and the use of early voting has increased in statewide elections since then. In fact, if most frequent voters are more likely to show up for a special election and more likely to cast early ballots, then we should expect the share of total votes cast in early voting to be even higher than in recent elections. If that is the case, the total turnout would be even lower than these forecasts.
No one yet knows how to accurately predict turnout from early votes in Louisiana. Still, whichever forecast you use, they all suggest that turnout will be as low as the 2006 and 2010 special elections at best, or, perhaps more likely, much lower.
Will the New Orleans Mayor’s Race Help?
New Orleans is holding a mayor’s election at the same time as the special election for State Treasurer. There has been some speculation about whether the intensity of a local election in New Orleans will draw people to the voting booth who might not otherwise show up. While they’re casting a ballot for a mayoral candidate, perhaps they’ll vote in the special election too.
This is plausible, but the effect will be small.
Looking at within-parish variation over the last two special elections (i.e., accounting for factors that vary across parishes but are stable over time), parishes that had ‘significant’ local elections saw about a three percentage point increase in turnout. I defined ‘significant’ as parish-wide elections (e.g. sheriff) or other elections (e.g. mayor, state legislature) in districts that covered at least 75 percent of the parish population.
A three percentage point boost in Orleans Parish would amount to about 7,733 additional votes in the State Treasurer’s race. Depending on total votes in the special election, these additional Orleans ballots would probably amount to a boost of 1.0 to 1.8 percentage points to the total statewide turnout.