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Despite record voting for presidential election, Louisiana’s runoff sees 20% turnout; here’s why

As record-breaking as the Nov. 3 election was, Saturday’s runoff is on track for an anemic turnout, if early voting results are any indication.

Except for in Baton Rouge, where the mayor-president’s race is on the ballot, about 26% fewer voters cast their ballots early when compared to the December 2016 runoffs – 186,230 early votes statewide in 2016 to 132,514 in 2020, according the secretary of state’s official tally.

In the Nov. 3 presidential election, 986,428 of the state’s 3 million registered voters participated early and accounted for about 45% of the total vote. Records were shattered on Nov. 3 with 2 million total votes cast or a 70.1% turnout.

In 2016, the last presidential election, 67.8% of Louisiana voters participated. But in the December 2016 runoffs, which included Republican John N. Kennedy and Democrat Foster Campbell in a U.S. Senate race, only 29.5% of voters cast ballots.

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“Low turnout is an unfortunate reality for most December elections,” said Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin on Monday. “Despite a near-record turnout for the Presidential elections, we are projecting turnout for Dec. 5th (Saturday) of 20%. Whether voter fatigue or lack of interest in the races is to blame, we should take a long look at whether December elections sufficiently engage Louisiana voters, or whether changes in future election dates should be made.”

The statistics portend well for East Baton Rouge Mayor-President Sharon Broome, said John M. Couvillon. JMC Enterprises of Louisiana has studied the state’s voting patterns for years. Unlike most of the state’s parishes, East Baton Rouge had more early voters last week – 10,000 more – than it did during the 2016 early voting period.

But turnout will be very low for Saturday’s other marquee races: Public Services Commission District 1 and 5th Congressional District. Both races showed dramatic drops in early voting participation compared to previous races.

The 300,722 registered voters in East Baton Rouge Parish will decide whether Mayor-President Broome, a Democrat, wins a second four-year term or is replaced by Republican challenger Steve Carter, a former state representative. Broome came just short of winning a second term with 48% of the vote in a crowded field with Carter polling 20% of the primary vote.

A total of 70.2% of the parish’s registered voters participated in the Nov. 3 primary. The two Democratic candidates in the primary polled 55% of the vote in a parish that gave 56% of its vote to Democratic presidential candidate Joseph R. Biden. Four Republicans and a candidate unaffiliated with a party split the remaining votes.

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Couvillon said the early voting statistics seem to favor Broome. Back in 2016, 40% of the parish’s Black voters cast ballots in the election Broome won and that included the benefits of Campbell’s get-out-the-vote effort by a national Democratic Party hoping to get close to a majority in the U.S. Senate. East Baton Rouge Parish has 132,638 registered Black voters, only 3% of whom are members of thee Republican Party. 

In the Nov. 3 primary, 39% of the Black voters participated early. Last week, 45.5% of the 34,196 early votes were cast by registered Black voters. That’s 69% more early votes than were cast in 2016, a race which Broome won on Election Day.

“That’s certainly a greater advantage for Mayor Broome,” Couvillon said. “What that tells me is that Black voters are more active and Mayor Broome paid more attention to get out the vote early.”

Couvillon expects a 35% turnout in Baton Rouge when all is said and done.

“It’s respectable, not necessarily good,” he said.

A runoff for the 5th congressional district to replace retiring U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham, R-Alto, pits two Republican candidates Saturday: Luke Letlow, Abraham’s chief of staff from the Monroe-area community of Start, and state Rep. Lance Harris, R-Alexandria.

Couvillon expects the turnout to be very low, at least that’s what the early voting numbers seem to indicate.

The 5th U.S. Congressional District represents 489,586 registered voters in 825 precincts spread across all or part of 24 parishes. Most of the voters live in Monroe and Alexandria. But the district stretches to Opelousas and across the Florida parishes past Bogalusa to the toe of the boot.

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Early voting results show 30% fewer voters participated last week than the 34,498 who cast early ballots in 2016.

Both Letlow and Harris are running as conservative Republicans in a district that twice voted overwhelmingly for President Donald Trump. The last time two Republicans vied when this seat was open was back in 2013, when 19.2% of the voters turn up to back Vance McAllister over state Rep. Neil Riser. After McAllister, who quickly got caught up in a scandal, was ousted, Abraham twice met Democratic Monroe Mayor Jamie Mayo in races that attracted 45.2% and 52.6% of registered voters to the polls.  

Couvillon said a race with two Republicans likely will translate in many of the district’s Democratic voters, who include Gov. John Bel Edwards, finding some other way to spend their Saturday. “It’s going to boil down to which candidate can turn out his base better,” Couvillon said.

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Few voters ever get excited by a PSC race, even though the five elected commissioners set the price customers pay for their electricity each month, Couvillon said. And the early voting numbers were extremely low among the 671,163 registered voters in 676 precincts from all or part of 11 parishes that make up Public Service Commission District 1.

About 36% fewer voters cast ballots early than they did back in 2014, the last time incumbent Commissioner Eric Skrmetta, R-Metairie, ran for reelection. On Saturday, Skrmetta faces Democratic candidate Allen Borne Jr., of New Orleans.

Back in 2014, Skrmetta won that race by about 4,000 votes but lost almost all the parishes except Jefferson and St. Tammany, which have the most votes in the race, and where he ran up the totals capturing 12,000 more than his rival in a December 2014 race in which 44% of the district’s registered voters participated.

Jefferson Parish cast 31% fewer early votes this year – 8,286 in 2020 to 12,070 in 2014. St. Tammany early votes are down 56.7% this year – 6,325 to 14,427, according to the Secretary of State’s records.

“What you’re seeing, I think, is exhaustion from an extremely fractious and long presidential race after elections in 2018, 2019, and 2020,” Couvillon said. “Have you noticed how many people have already put out Christmas decorations? I think people are ready for happier times.”

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