How High is "High" Turnout?
Louisiana’s turnout problem has not been in federal contests. It’s been in state government elections.
More than forty percent of Louisiana’s voting-eligible population cast ballots in races for the U.S. House of Representatives this year. Is that high turnout? Depends on how you look at it.
First, the good news….
Compared to last year’s special election for State Treasurer, when barely more than one in ten eligible Louisianans bothered to vote, this year’s midterm turnout is striking.
Even without comparing this year’s election to last year, which was the lowest turnout in a statewide election in decades, participation in the midterm should please those who pine for an engaged citizenry.
Figure 1 shows the share of the eligible voter population in Louisiana who cast ballots in the top of the ticket race in each federal election since 1980 – separating presidential contests from midterm contests.
[Technical note for those interested in such things: This measure of turnout differs from the measure used by the Secretary of State in two ways. First, the numerator includes only those votes in the top of the ticket race rather than all persons who cast a vote in any section of the ballot. The top of the ticket race differs by election. In presidential elections, it is the number of votes for president. In midterm years with a U.S. Senate election on the ballot, it is the count of votes cast in that race. In midterm races without a U.S. Senate race on the ballot, it is the total number of votes in all U.S. House races in the state. Second, the denominator is the voting eligible population (VEP) rather than the number of registered voters. VEP includes individuals who are legally eligible to register to vote but fail to do so. Typically, when measured this way, turnout rates come out about three to six points lower than the turnout rate used by the Secretary of State’s office.]
Louisiana’s turnout looks pretty good in federal elections. Louisiana has a strong record of matching or besting national turnout in presidential elections, and in the last two rounds of midterms – 2010 and 2014 – turnout in the state was close to or higher than national turnout. Turnout in Louisiana remained about as high this year as it had in the previous two midterm elections, yet fell about five points short of the current projection for national turnout (48 percent).
This is no small accomplishment - not only because the national benchmark itself surged to its highest level in decades, but also because of the kind of midterm election this was in Louisiana. The 2018 election in Louisiana had no U.S. Senate race on the ballot and no competitive elections in the U.S. House, so turnout “should” have gone down here relative to 2010 and 2014 and relative to the nation. The national turnout rates include all states, some of which have statewide elections for the U.S. Senate races on the ballot and some of which do not, some of which feature competitive races and some of which do not. Higher offices on the ballot, such as a U.S. Senate race, and competitive elections can drive up turnout. In fact, three of the four lowest turnout rates for Louisiana on this graph are from the elections when no U.S. Senate seat in the state is on the ballot, which occur every 12 years (1982, 1994, and 2006). The fourth is from a particularly noncompetitive U.S. Senate race in 1998 when popular incumbent John Breaux won his third and final term.
Figure 2 offers a cleaner comparison and reveals just how notable the turnout rate in Louisiana is this year. This graph includes only those midterms in Louisiana that did not include a U.S. Senate seat. Our turnout rate this year tops the national midterm turnout rate in just about every year shown – except for the spike in 2018. This is an incredible surge in turnout for a state without a U.S. Senate election.
Now the bad news…
Although a number of political watchers have lamented low turnout in Louisiana in recent years, federal elections have never really been the problem. Our turnout is relatively high in presidential elections and has been on the rise in recent midterm elections.
Louisiana’s turnout problem is not in federal elections, it is in state government elections.
Figure 3 shows the turnout rate in Louisiana’s gubernatorial elections alongside the federal elections discussed above. This is where the drop has occurred.
While we can praise ourselves for relatively high turnout in 2018, the challenge is whether we can reverse the trend in elections for our state leaders.
A few other tidbits from Tuesday:
While it did not cost any seats, the national swing in the U.S. House elections may have put a small dent in Republican candidates’ vote shares here. In the four districts with Republicans and non-Republicans on the ballot in both 2016 and 2018, Republican vote share fell by four points in the First District, 11 points in the Third District, six points in the Fourth District, and four points in the Sixth District. There were only Republicans on the ballot in the Fifth District two years ago, but a challenge this year brought the Republican vote share to 67 percent there. There were no Republican candidates in the Second District in either 2016 or 2018.
There were more votes for the first constitutional amendment (to prohibit convicted felons from seeking or holding elected office for five years after completion of their sentences) than for all the congressional races combined or for any other single election on the ballot – including the Secretary of State’s election or the other constitutional amendments.
Pundits will continue to debate the value of using early vote to predict turnout or election outcomes nationally. Here in Louisiana, their use remains very much in doubt for reasons I wrote about last week. Now, we have another example. The number of early votes increased by 29 percent from our last midterm to this year, but the overall turnout rate fell by a point. Much of the boost in early voting this year appears to be the continuing trend of voters moving the timing of their vote from Election Day to the early voting period, rather than reflecting a surge of interest from folks who have been sitting on the side lines.