Columns » Clancy DuBos

Turnout, turnout, turnout



There's an old saying in the real estate biz that the three most important factors in buying a good piece of property are location, location, location. There's a parallel rule in politics: Successful elections depend on turnout, turnout, turnout.

  There was a time when turnout for runoff elections in New Orleans equaled or exceeded that of the primaries. When Ernest "Dutch" Morial ran for mayor in 1977 and for re-election in early 1982, for example, turnout was higher in the runoffs. It exceeded 70 percent in each of those elections, in fact.

  That won't happen in this Saturday's (March 15) municipal runoffs. Chances are the turnout that day will be significantly lower than the already-low 34 percent turnout in the Feb. 1 primary. It could fall below 20 percent.

  Overall, voter turnout in New Orleans has plummeted since the high water marks of the 1970s and '80s, but that doesn't mean local voters stopped caring. The biggest factor in declining turnout numbers has more to do with a change in the law than with voter apathy.

  In the mid-1990s, the so-called "motor voter law" kicked in. The federal act required states to allow all citizens the opportunity to register to vote when obtaining a driver's license or applying for social services. The aim was to increase voter participation, which had declined for almost a century, by making it easier to register.

  Numerous studies showed that poor and less-educated people tended to be under-registered. Many states historically made it inconvenient, if not difficult, for minorities to register. Motor voter changed all that. As a result, the country came as close as it has ever come to universal adult voter registration.

  But the law did not change people's attitudes. The hard truth is, a lot of people don't vote because they just don't care enough. Many don't feel they have a stake in electoral outcomes, or for other reasons they decline to vote. Before the motor voter law, the vast majority of those folks were not registered. After the law, most of them became registered, but they still don't care enough to vote.

  Thus, while the universe of registered voters has expanded significantly, the universe of people who care enough to vote has remained relatively static. Because so many more people are registered now, the mathematics of voter turnout has taken a turn for the worse — that is, statistically speaking, voter turnout appears to have plummeted.

  In actuality, about the same number of people still vote, but the turnout percentage looks worse because so many more people are now registered.

  For an example of how total registration can affect turnout percentages, consider the turnout for New Orleans' municipal primaries in 2010 and 2014. Percentagewise, turnout was higher this year — 34 percent compared to just 31 percent in 2010. However, the actual number of voters who went to the polls this year was almost 5,000 less than in 2010. In 2010, nearly 89,000 voters cast ballots in the mayoral primary, whereas this year slightly more than 84,000 voted.

  The reason the turnout percentage was higher this year is because thousands of local voters were purged from the rolls after 2010. That shrank the universe of eligible voters in New Orleans and thus skewed the turnout percentage higher this year. Voter purges are routine after annual canvasses by registrars. When voters' addresses are not confirmed or updated — and they fail to vote in two successive federal election cycles —they are purged.

  This phenomenon calls to mind the old saw about lies, damn lies and statistics. It also has given rise to a cottage industry among political consultants — voter ID and turnout specialists. It used to be that a good pollster and a good media consultant were the most important people in a campaign. Now that cabal includes a voter ID and GOTV (get out the vote) consultant.

  New Orleans has four runoffs on Saturday's ballot — for sheriff, coroner, City Council at-large and City Council District C. All four races are hotly contested, and the three most important factors in the outcome of each will be turnout, turnout, turnout.

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