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2021 early voting analysis: Low turnout, more mail-in ballots and Election Day expectations

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Early voting has concluded for the Nov. 13 election, and despite a lack of enthusiasm generated from the races themselves, mail-in voting continues to be a popular option during the pandemic.

This fall’s slate of elections features mayoral and city council races in New Orleans, a handful of special state legislative races, and a slew of local tax measures. The only items that will appear on ballots statewide are four consequential, albeit wonky, proposed constitutional amendments that could reshape the way the state collects sales taxes, assesses individual and corporate income taxes, funds local levee boards and handles any future budget deficits.

John Couvillon, founder of JMC Analytics and Polling, said the most apt comparison is the 2017 election cycle, which featured hotly-contested municipal elections in New Orleans, a special election for state treasurer and little else to gin up voter enthusiasm.

About 14.7% of registered voters participated in that fall’s elections, and 92,000 Louisiana voters cast their ballots early.

This year, nearly 140,000 voters have already cast their ballots — a 50% increase over the early in-person and mail-in vote totals in 2017. And while Louisianans will not know what is in those ballots until election night Saturday, Nov. 13, Couvillon said a lot can be gleaned from the early voting statistics by looking at who has voted, where they voted and how they cast their ballots.

One of the big takeaways is voting by mail continues to grow in popularity after a surge in demand for mail-in ballots during last fall’s presidential election. Couvillon credits the COVID-19 pandemic with accelerating what he calls a “culture change” around voting habits.

Last fall, unprecedented numbers of voters over the age of 65 took advantage of a voting option that has been available for years and signed up to automatically receive a mail-in ballot for that election, and every election after it for the rest of their lives.

“This increase [in early voting] is almost entirely an increase in mail-in balloting,” Couvillon said. “In-person early voting is up about 7%, whereas mail-in voting has nearly tripled between 2017 and 2021.”

But while a larger share of votes may be cast early by mail, Couvillon suspects the shift will only lead to a minor increase in overall turnout in what he described as a low-energy election. He expects the increased volume of those mail-in ballots to modestly drive up overall voter turnout to around 16% of all registered voters.

The fact that this fall’s highest-profile elections are being held in the Democratic stronghold of Orleans Parish has led followers of Louisiana politics to speculate on how comparatively higher turnout there might affect statewide contests, particularly the four proposed constitutional amendments being considered by voters this fall.

In 2017, Orleans Parish voters accounted for nearly 20% of all votes cast in the Oct. 14 election, which featured the New Orleans mayoral and city council races. Last fall, when voters across the state were eager to cast their vote in the presidential election, Orleans Parish voters only accounted for 8% of all votes cast.

New Orleans Mayor Latoya Cantrell, who is up for re-election, has come out strongly against Amendment 1, which would pave the way for centralized sales tax collections in the state and would empower a new state commission to set up and oversee the system.

Cantrell has criticized the initiative, saying it would give decision makers in Baton Rouge control of the sales tax dollars that the city relies on for more than 30% of its operating budget. She argues that under the new system, those dollars could be delayed at the political whim of a panel that is more likely to be aligned with the Republican-controlled state legislature than the Democratic-controlled city of New Orleans.

But Couvillon said turnout in Orleans Parish would have to be dramatically higher on Election Day than it was during early voting for Cantrell’s opposition to affect the outcome of that race.

Orleans Parish voters account for roughly 16% of the votes cast in-person and via mail so far — one percentage point lower than their share of early votes in 2017. And Orleans Parish voters are not a monolithic group, particularly when it comes to Mayor Cantrell and the issues she champions.

“If [Cantrell’s] staking her claim on an amendment, I don’t think she would sway 80% to 90% of voters in Orleans Parish — maybe more like 55% to 60%,” Couvillon said. “But alongside that 55% to 60% she might get in Orleans Parish, that could be a negative weight in places like Jefferson, St. Bernard and St. Tammany.”

Couvillon also said the early voting numbers out of Calcasieu Parish show a lack of Democratic enthusiasm in the race to replace State Sen. Ronnie Johns, a moderate Republican who was a frequent ally of Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards in the state legislature.

The contest is one of three special state legislative races this fall and the only legislative race featuring a showdown between Democratic and Republican candidates. The other two races are for safe Democratic seats in the Louisiana House of Representatives. Voters in the West Bank’s 102nd House District will select a replacement for Gary Carter, who recently moved up to the State Senate, and Monroe voters will select a replacement for Frederick Jones.

Johns ended his 25-year stint in the state legislature after Edwards appointed him chairman of the state Gaming Control Board. The appointment came just days after Johns controversially sat out an historic veto session in which Republican legislative leaders sought to override Edwards’ vetoes of two of their top legislative priorities of the 2021 regular session.

The race in Johns’ former district gives Democrats an opportunity to chip away at the Republican supermajority in the State Senate. Edwards has openly endorsed the Democratic candidate in the race, Dustin Granger, but early voting statistics show that Democrats had only a slight edge in the number of early votes cast in Calcasieu Parish. Couvillon said he was surprised, given the high stakes and emphasis that the state Democratic Party has placed on that race.

“Turnout has been pretty low,” Couvillon said of the legislative race in Calcasieu Parish. “Democrats typically do better when it comes to pre-Election Day voting, and I would have expected more Democratic enthusiasm.”

Early mail in votes will continue to trickle in to local registrars of voters offices until 4:00 p.m. on Friday. The final ballots of the Nov. 13 election will be cast when voters head to the polls Saturday.

Paul Braun is WRKF's Capitol Access reporter.