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Even isolated, N.O. elections draw better than most

The League of Women Voters almost from the start has shilled for liberal causes, but its New Orleans chapter actually seems to have done something useful in calling for investigating New Orleans’, in state law reinforced by its charter, idiosyncratic dates for municipal elections. I’m happy to oblige.

Its study points out several impediments to maximizing turnout for the present dates, first fixed in 1986, of February for the initial general election and March for the general election runoff. It points out that events such as, if played in New Orleans, the Super Bowl the day after and the possibility of it being on a Carnival weekend in some years could depress turnout, as well as having elections coupled with national elections in the fall might boost turnout. But putting them back to where they were before 1986 might erode turnout due to lack of attention as other contests compete, and it could interfere with the budgeting process for the next fiscal year.

The fiscal timeline, however, is not a concern of other large Louisiana cities.
For example, Shreveport adjusts without difficulty to this schedule, last year actually having the incoming council members just before the deadline near the end of the year pass a budget, while four years prior to that the outgoing council took care of that matter prior to elections. No doubt New Orleans could adjust to this without difficulty.

As for the question of turnout, a review of 2002 initial and runoff general elections and the 2010 initial general election (there was no runoff for mayor and several other high profile contests in New Orleans last year, making it difficult to compare turnout figures) between New Orleans and the closest jurisdictions in population for these kinds of elections, East Baton Rouge and Jefferson Parishes, can be done. The former’s city-parish metropolitan government and the latter’s parish-wide elections, governing the largest number of people living in Louisiana in unincorporated areas in a parish, simulate to some degree the New Orleans/Orleans Parish governing system and environment. (2006 is not used given the disruptions by Hurricane Katrina.)

In doing so, turnout figures in New Orleans’ spring elections come off quite impressively, despite the absence of any federal elections that coincide with the fall dates. In 2002 initial election, 49.5 percent overall turned out and month later 48 percent did. In the 2010 election, 32.7 percent made it to the polls. By contrast, in East Baton Rouge the comparable figures were 27.3, 53.1, and 26.3 percent; in Jefferson, they were 22.5, 46.6, and 19.5 percent (note the middle figures are on a Tuesday coinciding with federal general election runoffs, while all others including all for Orleans are on a Saturday).

For an improved contrast, figures for blacks only can be used, as it could be argued that the New Orleans electorate typically is well over half black, while in East Baton Rouge it’s less than half and lower in proportion still in Jefferson. Since turnout typically is lower for blacks than whites, some elections as much as 15 points, that could skew New Orleans’ overall turnout figures lower. Doing this, the respective numbers for New Orleans are 45.0, 44.1, and 28.2 percent; for East Baton Rouge are 20.0, 43.3, and 21.2 percent; for Jefferson are 17.2, 33.1, and 11.0 percent.

Especially when looking at these figures, New Orleans’ citizens’ willingness to turn out even when no other federal elections appear on the ballot is impressive. On every date among blacks, they turn out at higher rates that the most comparable other jurisdictions. (And when looking at figures for whites and others, the same also is true except in East Baton Rouge for both categories for the 2002 general election runoff.) While it’s possible that moving New Orleans elections back to the fall could increase turnout, it seems in comparison that having them in the spring does not unduly discourage turnout.

So if making an objection to the idiosyncratic placement of New Orleans elections, that may make sense if on the basis of the extra cost by an isolated election, or that candidates may prefer fall elections instead of campaigning through the holiday and Carnival seasons with hardly any light by which to knock on doors. Because of its stimulating political culture, even with isolated elections New Orleans draws to them more than an adequate number of participants.

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