Early voter turnout in East Baton Rouge Parish is up for the Oct. 12 primary, especially in the St. George area, but analysts differ on what it may mean for the vote to carve a new city out of the southeastern portion of the parish.
The early voting numbers were up across the parish for the first four days of early voting compared to the same time period for the fall 2015 primary, which also included a gubernatorial race. But the most dramatic increase was among voters in the St. George area.
A local pollster, John Couvillon, president of JMC Analytics and polling, said the number of people casting early ballots was three times higher among voters in the southeast part of the parish than it was four years ago. That's where a hotly-contested proposal to incorporate a City of St. George will appear on the ballot for more than 54,000 registered voters.
Couvillon said the heavy early turnout could bode well for proponents behind the St. George incorporation effort. His analysis looked at early voting data in the parish between Sept. 28 and Oct. 2.
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"Looking at the (political) party composition of those who early vote in St. George, a Republican-friendly area, it would appear the pro-St. George side is getting their vote out more," Couvillon said. "If you had higher Democrat percentage from St. George, it would suggest to me the anti-St. George side was turning out more."
A political analyst at LSU, however, argues that early voting numbers in Louisiana aren't a good predictor of how elections will turn out.
And those opposed to St. George, like Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome, see the heavy turnout for early voting in the St. George area as a positive sign for them, an indication that the election might swing in their favor.
St. George would become the fifth city in East Baton Rouge Parish and one of the largest in the state, boasting a population of 86,000 people.
The effort to create the city has been largely driven by the desire of its conservative proponents to create a separate school district. But it's morphed into an "us vs. them" campaign with the city-parish after state legislators refused to support creating a separate school district until a corresponding city is incorporated.
After failing in their first attempt to get the incorporation proposal on the ballot, organizers took a second stab at a petition drive. But first they carved out most of the areas in southeast East Baton Rouge Parish where opposition was the highest.
The change to the boundaries for the proposed city would decrease its black population from 20% to 12%, setting St. George up to be a majority white and mostly Republican-voting city.
"The way they carved out the map, splitting some precincts up, made it a painstaking process to crunch the numbers," Couvillon said.
According to his analysis, there has been a 243% increase in early voting within the proposed city of St. George for fall primary this year compared to the same four-day early voting period in the 2015 fall primary.
Between Sept. 28 and Oct. 2, Couvillon said, 7,049 people in the St. George area participated in early voting. Four years ago, it was only 2,057 voters, but there was no incorporation proposition on that ballot.
Couvillon said 53% of the early voters in the St. George area were registered Republicans in 2015. That number went up slightly this year to 57%.
Early voter turnout the first four days throughout the parish this year was almost 2½ times the turnout for the same period in 2015: 22,501 voters this year compared to 9,155 in 2015.
"St. George is making up a good portion of the pie if you're talking about early voting. I would say this could bode well for those seeking to create the city," he said.
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Couvillon combed over early voting numbers the first four days in the 2015 and 2019 gubernatorial elections, accounting for all the changes in the parish's voting precincts within the four-year gap.
He then built a street-level database using the map posted on St. George's website to make educated guesses for those precincts not wholly in the St. George proposed area but with voters eligible to vote on the incorporation proposal.
"So if, let's say, 1,600 voters vote at a split precinct but only 800 lived in the proposed area, I assume 50% of the early voting in that precinct is St. George early voting," he said.
Michael Henderson, director of LSU's Public Policy Research Lab, argues early voting numbers are weak indicators of how elections might turn out.
"People have really only just started using early voting as a regular way to participate in elections," he said. "If a total number of ballots cast early are higher, none of us know if that is a reflection of more people who would normally vote or are just doing it early."
Henderson adds that political analysts should also be careful in predicting outcome on the number of Democrat or Republican early votes.
"We have a bunch of older, white voters in the state who are registered as Democrats but they've been voting Republican since the 1980s," he said. And, he added, "there are some elections (where) registered Republicans have voted differently than what was expected."
So, factors like LSU home games on election day and crowded fields in the gubernatorial races, both this year and in 2015, may not play a significant role, if any, in early voting numbers.
People in the St. George camp are looking at the higher early voting numbers as a good sign for them. They've spent the past few weeks urging their supporters to cast their ballots early, even saying at a rally last month that a higher turnout during early voting would assure their victory.
"The people who signed our petition have been supporting and working on this for a decade now," said Drew Murrell, an attorney and spokesman for the St. George campaign. "We were kind of hoping, once it began, our supporters would come out in droves. The spikes we're seeing … you have to think that bodes well for us."
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Broome said she believes the increase in early voters is an indication people have educated themselves on the "risky plan" for St. George and are coming out to reject it.
"We know the more people who cast ballots on this issue, the more likely Baton Rouge will stay united," she said. "Organizers of the proposed city are making promises they can't keep and we believe voters are responding in kind."