Strong early voting doesn’t guarantee a strong election day

Frank goes to the polls Illustration by Peter DeHart

As election day nears, political enthusiasm is up across the nation with record-breaking turnout predicted for the Nov. 6 contests. Democrats have been galvanized since the 2016 presidential election and sustained by debates over health care, immigration and sexual harassment. Meanwhile, the Brett Kavanaugh hearings re-energized Republicans, and with low unemployment and high financial markets, they are expected to return to the polls.

As with all midterm elections, this one is a referendum on the president and his political party. Voters have a long record of punishing presidents for failures to meet their campaign promises by taking out their frustrations in congressional elections. In 33 out of 36 midterm contests held since the beginning of the Civil War, the president’s political party has lost seats in Congress. Presidents Bush (2006) and Obama (2010) both lost partisan control of Congress. President Trump will likely be no different. While the Senate looks safe to remain under Republican control, the House has far higher chances of flipping to a Democratic majority.

Despite national furor and dozens of hotly contested seats, at home in Louisiana, the competition is minimal. The well-respected publication Cook Political Report listed all six of Louisiana’s House seats as safe for the incumbents. Even with heightened Democratic enthusiasm and revived political organizing in Louisiana, we’re unlikely to shift this year.

Even though dissatisfaction with Congress as a whole remains high (only 21 percent of Americans approve of the job Congress is doing, according to the latest Gallup Poll), since the 1940s, 94 percent of all House incumbents have successfully won re-election. Midterm shifts in political control often come from incumbents choosing to retire from their seats or seek a higher political office. Louisiana’s District 3, currently held by Rep. Clay Higgins, drew serious challengers including Republican Josh Guillory and Democrat Mimi Methvin. However, Higgins has handily won the fundraising battle, taking in over $800,000 thus far, more than double the amount raised by any other challenger.

It’s a good sign that more people are early voting, but it doesn’t give us much information on turnout overall. 

Given that voter turnout has been generally abysmal is recent Lafayette Parish elections, ranging from 2.5 percent – 13.8 percent, current boons in turnout for early voting have lifted the spirits of election observers. In total, 307,237 citizens early voted in Louisiana, and 11,000 in Lafayette. It’s a good sign that more people are early voting, but it doesn’t give us much information on turnout overall. Those increases can be partially explained by chronic voters becoming more comfortable with early voting, rather than new voters coming out for the first time.

In our most recent and comparable midterm elections, we had reasonably high statewide turnout, 51.52 percent in 2014 and 44.23 percent in 2010. Current estimates place turnout in Louisiana this year at 30-35 percent. That’s down from our regular midterms. However, this is the first time since 2006 that we do not have a Louisiana Senate race on the ballot, which would tend to diminish turnout. The only statewide race on the ballot is a special election to fill the position of secretary of state, with a deep pool of candidates that will, by all accounts, go to a runoff in December. Democratic candidate Renee Fontenot Free has polled well, but the field is deep with several Republican candidates, including the current office holder, Kyle Ardoin, and state Reps. Rick Edmonds and Julie Stokes. In 2017 Louisiana held a statewide election for a similar ranking position – state treasurer – and drew just under 13 percent turnout. By comparison, a 30-35 percent turnout is a victory.

In Lafayette, there are two parishwide ballot measures drawing attention. Placed on the ballot by a vote of the Lafayette City-Parish Council in May, these two new millages would support the jail (2.94 mills) and the district court (2.00 mills). Both the jail and court are racked with state-mandated expenses, and with the parish budget under increasing pressure, these millages are viewed by proponents as a means to stop the bleeding of the budget. Vocal opponents have included the increasingly familiar voice of Citizens for a New Louisiana, which circulated mailers last week urging opposition to the taxes.

Weighing in months after the taxes were voted on by the council, Mayor-President Joel Robideaux recently announced his own opposition, arguing that Lafayette residents should not face new taxes at this time. By contrast, in the November 2017 election Robideaux actively stressed the importance of renewing two millages to support the jail and court that had previously failed in an April 2017 election. This opposition to the new tax proposals so late in the process further exacerbates the growing rift between the council and the mayor-president.

With a relatively low projected turnout and opposition coming from within LCG from the mayor-president and externally from Citizens for a New Louisiana, the passage of these millages is far from certain. Given the beleaguered situation of the parish budget, the closure of the Buchanan Street parking garage and the impending charter amendments on the December ballot, Lafayette Parish has some serious financial soul-searching to do in the days and weeks ahead. All eyes will be on the election results as they roll in Tuesday night.