The organized backers of Amendment 2, which will require future Louisiana juries to return unanimous verdicts in all criminal cases, were cautiously optimistic when the polls opened Tuesday morning.
But when they closed 14 hours later, even they were shocked at their margin of victory: 64 percent for and 36 percent against, a nearly 2-1 margin.
Almost as impressive: The amendment passed in 61 of Louisiana’s 64 parishes, and the three where it failed – Franklin, LaSalle and Sabine – are among the state’s smallest.
State voters jettisoned a 120-year-old mainstay of Louisiana justice Tuesday, overwhelmingly passing a constitutional amendment to require una…
Maybe the most startling fact to be found among the numbers was this: The backers of unanimous jury verdicts were able to successfully create a truly diverse coalition of the sort that is rare in today's polarized political landscape.
Support for requiring unanimous juries began as a liberal cause. And the amendment passed by the largest margins in left-leaning jurisdictions, as measured how voters leaned in recent national elections. Atop the list was Orleans Parish, where 85 percent of voters were in favor. Other parishes that Hillary Clinton carried in 2016, including Caddo, East Baton Rouge and St. John the Baptist, were next.
But in a state like Louisiana, where the Democratic nominee for president typically falls short of 40 percent, support from liberals isn’t enough. And the real story of how Amendment 2 passed is likely in its surprising strength in large conservative bastions like St. Tammany and Ascension parishes and conservative strongholds such as Acadiana.
The measure got 62 percent in St. Tammany and 61 percent in Ascension – big suburban parishes where Hillary Clinton got trounced in 2016. Clinton got 22 and 30 percent of the vote, respectively, in those parishes.
As the final Election Day 2018 results were tabulated across Louisiana, there were no major upsets in the southern part of the state. But the …
The amendment’s popularity tended to correlate closely with Clinton’s performance in 2016, although it did better in almost every parish than did the former secretary of state. There were only two parishes where Clinton polled better than Amendment 2: East Carroll and Madison. Both are in the lightly populated northeastern part of the state.
Organizers say that’s no accident. Polls had shown that voters generally favored the amendment the more they knew about it. John Kay, state director of Americans for Prosperity, the libertarian PAC funded by the Koch brothers, said he focused the conservative campaign mostly in the more populated parishes in the northwestern corner of the state, including Caddo and Bossier parishes, where voters turned out in strong support.
Kay said the PAC spent more than $100,000 on mail drops in northern Louisiana, along with social media and other digital messaging. It also fired off individualized text messages to some 15,000 voters, in which the recipients could ask questions and receive answers and relevant web links in response, he said.
The message "was essentially, if the government’s going to take away the hopes and dreams of Louisianans, they need to make sure they’re taking liberty from the right people,” Kay said.
In conservative areas, the disproportionate impact of the split-verdict law on black defendants was largely ignored in favor of mailers featuring young white people in cuffs or behind bars. These were accompanied by the message, "Give Louisiana the same rights afforded by almost every other state!"
Many voters were simply ignorant of Louisiana's aberrant jury law, and once they learned about the issue, they tended to support unanimity, Kay said.
The final result, he said, “tells me a lot of people expected they were entitled to (unanimous juries) in the first place and were appalled they weren’t.”
Supporters of Amendment 2 caught a break when the Louisiana District Attorneys Association dropped its opposition to the measure, staying neutral instead. The DAs could have been a potent force against the change.
Enthusiasm is high on election day in the New Orleans area, where organizers turnout is being buoyed by the national attention to the mid-term…
Sabine Parish was one of just three parishes to vote against Amendment 2, and coincidentally or not, Don Burkett, the DA there, was one of the few outspoken opponents of the measure.
“The public here knew I was opposed to it, and I think that was a factor” in the measure’s defeat in Sabine Parish, Burkett said Wednesday. “I think my people look at things a little differently than the rest of the state.”
Among the conservative areas that the amendment's liberal supporters fretted over most was Acadiana, where Republican U.S. Rep. Clay Higgins was up for re-election and figured to draw out a swell of Trump voters -- a wild card that the pro-Amendment 2 campaign tried to temper with a voice of its own.
The response came in an ominous video of State Rep. Blake Miguez, R-Erath, a gun rights champion, as he fired away at an indoor shooting range while coloring the split-verdict rule as a menace to individual liberty.
The video was sent directly to chronic voters, mostly through sophisticated targeting via social media. It never aired on TV – a strategic decision, said Mary-Patricia Wray, communications director for the left-leaning Unanimous Jury Coalition.
“We decided not to go on TV with a big message that would wake up the wrong voters, and instead focused on a very highly targeted, persuasive message to just the right people," Wray said.
It was a strategy deployed by both liberal and conservative groups who joined in a rare spate of bipartisan energy around jury unanimity, working separately to reach kindred political spirits.
The strategy clearly worked.
Support in several Acadiana parishes eclipsed 60 percent, including in Iberia, Lafayette and Calcasieu parishes, the latter home to a district attorney who along with Burkett was one of Amendment 2's only outspoken opponents. When it was over, majority support for the amendment ran through all 22 parishes in Acadiana.
“I don’t think by any means they’ve gone moderate or gone left,” Miguez remarked Wednesday of his constituency. “But when they dug down to their core beliefs, they had to make a decision."
Silas Lee, a Xavier University professor who did polling for the coalition campaign, said the fight to remove a split-verdict law provided a rare moment of comity in a fractured political climate. Its lack of organized opposition didn’t hurt either, Lee said.
The ballot measure attracted “not only African-Americans and whites, Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives. It also brought in other diverse groups: Community activists, athletes, entertainers,” Lee said.
“You don’t see that at all, hardly.”