Fueled by passions over Donald Trump, both mainstream political parties in Louisiana saw significant improvement in voter registration in the past year, but at the cost of greater racial stratification between the two.
The Louisiana Democratic Party lost the fewest number of voters in a decade – almost 4,000 voters overall – from February 2020 to February 2021. The Republican Party continued to gain ground, as it has over the past 13 years, adding more than 90,000 voters.
The new numbers show the continuation of a long-running trend in which conservative White Louisiana voters, who once registered as Democrats, fled the party for the GOP, data from the Louisiana Secretary of State’s office suggests. The Democratic losses among White voters – more than 32,000 left the party over 12 months – were so steep that the surge in 22,000 Black voters registering as Democrats couldn’t make up the gap.
“Louisiana used to be an outlier in terms of the South for a long time,” said Albert Samuels, chair of Southern University’s department of political science. “The politics of Louisiana are starting to increasingly become more like Mississippi, Alabama, South Carolina, where essentially the Black people are Democrats, the White people are Republicans.”
The exodus of White voters from the Democratic Party has likely been accelerated by Trump’s tenure, Samuels said. The Republican Party’s rolls soared by nearly 100,000 voters from January 2020 to January 2021, its largest gain in at least a decade. A drop of several thousand voters in recent months puts the 12-month change in Republican Party registration at 92,000 voters through February.
Meanwhile, other parties added 29,615 voters through February, part of a national trend of voters opting not to register as a Democrat or Republican.
Democrats overall still technically hold an advantage in registered voters in Louisiana. About 1.25 million of Louisiana’s roughly 3.1 million voters as of Feb. 1 were Democrats, while 1.02 million were Republicans and 823,459 were other parties.
But those totals are deceiving. Many of the people who are still registered as Democrats are holdovers from the generations when the Democratic Party dominated in the state, and consistently vote for Republican candidates now. There has been little incentive for them to switch their registration because Louisiana has open primaries, meaning all candidates for most offices appear on the same ballot regardless of party.
One exception is in presidential primaries, where Louisiana voters must be registered with either party to vote in their presidential preference contest.
Mike Henderson, the director of LSU’s Public Policy Research Lab, said the registration changes typically don’t have a big impact on the results of elections. That’s because many older white voters who are registered as Democrats don’t really think of themselves as Democrats anymore, and changes to their registration are merely their affiliation catching up with their attitudes.
Henderson also said the trend in Louisiana and nationally of people registering without a party affiliation may not affect elections much, given that many of those voters tend to think of themselves as closer to one of the two major parties.
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For much of the last decade, the Democratic Party was led by state Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, who announced she was stepping down as chair of the party in July. Peterson is now running to succeed Cedric Richmond in the New Orleans-based 2nd Congressional District.
In a statement, Peterson highlighted that under her tenure, Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, won the election and re-election as governor, the first time that happened since the 70s, when Edwin Edwards won two consecutive terms.
“It took years of hard work from organizers, activists, and party leaders in the trenches to empower our communities that felt forgotten for too long. That accomplishment has deep, lasting impacts for the future of our party in a deep-red state like Louisiana.”
Over Peterson’s tenure, the Democratic Party lost 148,834 voters, about 10%, while the Republican Party grew by 20% to 948,850 voters. Those trends have continued in the ensuing months, and Republicans cracked 1 million voters for the first time in September.
At the same time, the drop of just 1,786 voters in calendar year 2020 represented one of the best years for the Democratic Party’s rolls in years. Several grassroots groups like the Power Coalition for Equity and Justice fanned out across the state, especially in cities, to sign up people to vote, boosting the number of Black voters, who are more often aligned with the Democratic Party.
Ashley Shelton, executive director of the Power Coalition, said the groundswell of interest in the presidential election helped its work signing up voters, especially voters of color. But she said there is still “momentum” behind the effort to engage voters of color in the political process, pointing to interest she’s seen in the congressional special elections set for March. She added the Power Coalition isn’t a partisan group, but focuses on engaging minority communities.
“This isn’t about one election, the presidential race,” she said. “This is about all elections.”
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Katie Bernhardt, of Lafayette, took over as chair of the Louisiana Democratic Party in September, and she said a key plank of her campaign for the post was stopping the exodus of voters from the party by telling people about the popular policies supported by Democrats. For instance, Edwards, the state’s lone Democratic statewide officeholder, expanded Medicaid in 2016, and has pushed unsuccessfully to increase the minimum wage. Both ideas garner wide support in public opinion surveys.
Bernhardt said she will soon bring on a new staffer to focus on registration efforts, and plans to roll out a new initiative to send resources to local party officials to help sign up voters.
“Party identity to me is the most important thing,” she said. “If we can encourage individuals to say, ‘I am a Democrat and I am recognizing myself as affiliating with the Democratic Party,’ that helps us with registration and that helps us with elections.”
Louisiana’s Republican Party chairman, Louis Gurvich, didn’t respond to questions about the recent drop or the party’s gains in 2020.
Edwards is one of the few bright spots for the Democratic party in Louisiana, and indeed the entire South; he surprised experts by winning easily in 2015 and then narrowly won re-election in 2019, despite Trump campaigning against him. He won in large part because Black voters turned out to the polls in greater numbers in his runoff against Baton Rouge businessman and Republican megadonor Eddie Rispone. But the GOP has taken a firm grip on power in the state Legislature, gaining a supermajority in the state Senate and a near-supermajority in the House. Republicans Bill Cassidy and John Kennedy also hold both of Louisiana’s U.S. Senate seats.
Both parties lost several thousand registered voters from December to February. The Democratic party lost 6,577 voters during that period, while the Republican party lost 4,920 voters.
Tyler Brey, a spokesperson for Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin, said the drop in voters after the presidential election was actually smaller than previous drops seen over similar periods in 2016, when 55,000 voters dropped off the rolls, and in 2012 and 2008, when similar numbers dropped.
Brey said federal law requires the state to regularly remove inactive voters from the rolls, but prevents the state from doing that within 90 days of a federal election. Because Louisiana has two congressional elections coming up in March, it couldn’t scrub the rolls. The last time the inactive voters were removed was January 2019, following 2018 congressional elections.