Political commentators have reflected on the low turnout in the Louisiana primary election Oct. 24, when only 1.11 million people cast ballots with a 39 percent voter turnout. Many reasons have been offered for this poor showing. A common theme is that this particular election was idiosyncratic and contained too much negative campaigning. In fact, Louisiana’s decline in active voters is a deeper, longer and more troubling trend than any one election can tell.
Probably the best apples-to-apples comparison of election turnout over time would be the statewide open primary elections for governor under the non-party system that Louisiana adopted in the late 1970s. The highest turnout ever for such an election was 1.61 million in 1983, and it’s been downhill ever since. The primary turnout was 1.56 million in 1987 and 1.55 million in 1991. Each of those were competitive races that unseated an incumbent. Since 1995, the state has held four competitive primaries in which voters were considering an open seat for governor. The number of voters in the 1995 primary was 1.48 million, followed by comparable primaries in later years with turnouts of 1.36 million, 1.30 million and, last month, 1.11 million. The downward trend has been steady and, in retrospect, startling.
Somehow, the state in the past three decades has lost half a million voters casting ballots in meaningful statewide elections. This has happened during a time when Louisiana’s voter registration efforts have produced rising numbers of registered voters and have made the state one of the most successful in the country in helping people become eligible to vote. The state has about 760,000 more registered voters this year than it did in 1983, thanks in part to the 1995 initiative to allow voter registration when a resident obtains a driver’s license.
The good news is that Louisiana voters turn out for U.S. presidential elections in stronger proportions than the national average. Also, gubernatorial runoff elections tend to draw more voters than their corresponding primary elections, which means we might expect more than 1.11 million voters for the Nov. 21 runoff, if history is any indication.
The message here is that the long-term impact of voter decline in state elections deserves a serious public discussion, perhaps prompted on these editorial pages. For the best answers, we need to examine the persistent trend that goes beyond the disappointing results of the latest primary turnout. If the strength of our democracy is based on awareness and participation, then a richer conversation about this issue is needed in Louisiana.
president, Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana