In terms of voting trends in the Pelican State, things are going to get worse before they get better. That’s a prediction, of course — one hopefully destined to be proven wrong. We’ll know for sure the evening of Saturday, Nov. 18, after voters are offered the opportunity to participate in statewide and local runoff elections
That’s an opportunity too many voters will likely pass on, though, and a day that could host the lowest turnout Louisiana has ever seen for such a ballot. Secretary of State Tom Schedler’s team recently reviewed 35 years — that’s three and a half decades — worth of statewide elections in search of the low-water mark. Few were surprised to learn it happened a little over a week ago, when only 400,000 of the state’s nearly 3 million registered voters participated in the Oct. 14 statewide primary. Unfortunately, there’s no good news to go along with this bad news. Election officials expect the voting tally in next month’s runoff will match the primary turnout of 13 percent, although there are warning signs that it could drop below that threshold. If you’re looking for a basis of comparison for the Nov. 18 ballot, you’re out of luck. The most appropriate for contrast might be the Oct. 16, 1993, election that included six constitutional amendments and a handful of multi-parish races. It produced roughly 400,000 votes statewide. Even though it sets off a few alarms, the 1993 election doesn’t provide a perfect comparison.
There was no marquee runoff on that ballot, such as a contest for treasurer, and it definitely lacked high-profile municipal slates, like we’re seeing in New Orleans. Making matters even worse, the race for treasurer will be the only item on the ballot for 56 of Louisiana’s 64 parishes next month. A crowded field of politicos wanting the job did very little to energize voters this summer, therefore it’s doubtful that the two remaining candidates — former state Rep. John Schroder and attorney Derrick Edwards — will do much better this fall. A special election for a legislative seat in the St. Tammany Parish area could create some interest, as could the mayoral race and two city council runoffs in New Orleans. Aside from those match-ups, however, there won’t be much else going on to help drive turnout. There are a few exceptions: — Allen and St. Mary parishes will elect city marshals in Oakdale and Franklin, respectively — Caddo Parish has to pick a new commissioner — A city court judgeship is open in East Baton Rouge Parish — There are council races in Denham Springs and Washington While all of these down-ballot races are for important elected positions, they probably won’t attract hordes of voters.
In other words, they don’t have the capability, either individually or collectively, to increase turnout. Even so-called high-propensity voters are struggling to stay awake, particularly when it comes to the lone statewide election for treasurer. High-propensity voters will always show up to the polls, come hell or high water — and in Louisiana they’re fully aware that the treasurer’s race is a snooze-fest. Quite frankly, no one in the know in Louisiana politics feels upbeat about turnout chances for the runoff. Prospects are so poor, in fact, that the secretary of state is already working on proposals for the Legislature to consider in the spring to correct this course. Schedler told reporters last week that the state spends $6 million for each statewide election — and it doesn’t matter if the entire registered demographic votes or if no one votes at all.
So any ideas to increase voter participation must take into account costs. When lawmakers convene in March, Schedler would like to see legislation that would eliminate special elections for offices that become vacant before the end of a term. For example, had this law been on the books when U.S. Sen. John Kennedy was elected last year, Louisiana would not have been forced to conduct a special statewide election this fall. Instead of a special election, Schedler’s proposal would allow an appointed official to serve in the position until the regularly scheduled election is held. Going back to our example, that would have pushed the election to replace Kennedy from this fall to the last quarter of 2019. Bigger ballots brimming with statewide, regional and local races do sound like the way to go. Yet before we can get there, before we can offer a few fixes for a slightly ailing system, we need to put this runoff to bed on Nov. 18. Yes, it could produce the lowest turnout for a statewide race in Louisiana history. And no, there probably won’t be any exciting electoral surprises. But that doesn’t mean you’re supposed to literally run off whenever there’s a runoff.