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Cultural change explains LA turnout decline

An interesting informational nugget about Louisiana’s voting turnout amplified by the New Orleans Times-Picayune deserves fuller scrutiny: participation by Louisianans in elections has spiraled downwards, and it’s worth figuring out why.

Louisiana State University Assistant Professor of Political Communication Michael Henderson, who also directs the Public Policy Research Lab that cranks out some useful survey data from time to time, made the observation that since the 1980s turnout in elections has dropped significantly. He points to voting eligible population proportions voting that, for example, have fallen by about a third in governors’ general elections since 1983.

His figures aren’t quite precise, and it gets a little arcane to explain that. There are three measures of turnout: by registrants, by voting age population (VAP), and by voting eligible population (VEP). Registration provides the least precision, as a number of demographic, cultural, and legal factors affect it across the states; in other words, because Louisiana (all data from 2016) has the ninth-highest registration totals among the states, using this as the basis to calculate turnout may allow an actual higher proportion of the population that voted in it to seem lower than in a state with a lower registration figure but higher registered voter turnout, because by definition the latter’s larger relative pool of non-registrants can’t vote.

Thus, VAP turns out as a truer measure – in every state anyone over 18 potentially can register to vote – but it still needs minor adjustment because states can declare people ineligible for a number of reasons, plus VAP includes noncitizens by definition ineligible to vote. This leads to VEP, the best measure as it excludes noncitizens and those under an order of imprisonment (who qualifies for that depends on each state’s laws; some states don’t disqualify such individuals). That can make a small difference: Louisiana ranks fifth highest in proportion of such disqualified individuals by VAP, so VAP would underestimate slightly its turnout compared to other states.

But even VEP doesn’t entirely capture accurately the numbers of eligible voters; for example, in Louisiana, those under a judgment of full interdiction for mental incompetence or partial interdiction with suspension of voting rights cannot vote, and the common formulation does not include that. Still, it would come pretty close in capturing a true measure of willingness to participate in an election 

Henderson almost certainly got his numbers from data collected by University of Florida Associate Professor of Political Science Michael McDonald, who has spent his academic career studying turnout, in particular based on the version of VEP described above (when he first started out, I taught with McDonald for a year at the University of Illinois Springfield). For his statewide races, if he used these data Henderson does have to fudge a bit here since McDonald collected data only for years of regular federal elections, so these always are a year off for Louisiana, but that likely introduces fairly minor error.

Over time, worth noting is the proportion of imprisonment-ordered in Louisiana has advanced. In 2016, it was about 3 percent of VAP, but in 1980 a tenth of that rate (because then only imprisoned felons could not vote and that population jailed then makes up about a quarter of the recent total). If we argue that convicting more individuals disproportionately removes from the electorate people not likely to vote, this means the same rate of conviction then as now and adding those on parole and probation actually understates older turnout rate by VEP.

Also keep in mind that Louisiana’s VAP rate for presidential contests have increased about 2.5 points from 1980 to 2016, moving up from 27th to 25th among the states, and its VEP rate has gone from 29th to 28th, up 4 points. In both absolute and relative terms, Louisianans have become more interested in federal elections.

So, what would explain the relative declining interest in state elections, as opposed to federal ones? As the same demographic factors that drive voting apply equally to each level, something different about the levels must have happened within the attitudes of the public to see such differential reactions over time.

Consider Louisiana’s political culture, which as an attitude must have a disproportionate impact on turnout. After all, the strongest drivers of voting are socioeconomic status (SES, a combination of education, occupation, and income), age, feelings of efficacy (how much impact the individual thinks he can have on the political system), and (as a much shorter-term phenomenon compared to these others), interest in the election. Looking at SES, Louisianans should participate disproportionately less as they rank below the median on these kinds of indicators, but do not. And the population’s age does not significantly vary from the nation’s.

Attitudes in part are affected by the same things: a person with less education typically feels less efficacious, yet, again, Louisiana does not hang out near the bottom of the table in turnout. And interest in elections comes and goes: as Henderson makes clear in a chart, gubernatorial elections without an incumbent – meaning a wider-open contest – or a lot of controversy (1991) blip upwards on VEP, but its long-term decline continues.

Thus, we are left with culture, which is part finds reflection in registrations proportions among the highest of the states, despite that registration also largely varies by the same factors causing voting turnout. People register because politics as a phenomenon historically has had outsized importance in Louisiana, mainly as a legacy of its populist past.

Since the Civil War, few states have seen populism exert as much influence over politics as has Louisiana. While many make the easy trace back to the ascension of former Gov. Huey Long, most don’t realize for a half-century prior to his gaining power the presence of a considerable populist movement in the state. This traditional liberal populism took a Manichean view of politics, sorting people into groups and using government as the instrument to reward and punish.

With politics infused more into daily life than in most places, naturally made it more relevant in people’s lives. Add to that Louisiana’s political past had featured greater doses of personalistic politics, with less emphasis on ideas or parties and more on individuals. This simplified politics for the mass public, with easily-understandable reference points, making its members more likely to take an interest in elections.

That has eroded, with much of that occurring since 1980. Strides in the quality of education delivered that makes people more discerning and less enamored relatively with charismatic individuals as the loci of politics, more political information and sources of it to compete with politicians’ disseminations of it, and a move away from liberal populist politics in part related to these two developments, combine to make what goes on in state government seems less relevant to daily life. At the same time, the world and country have become smaller places through travel and communications advances, providing greater stoking of interest in national affairs.

Interest in Louisiana elections among its people, which comparatively among the states was high, has declined because the political culture that placed much emphasis on what state government does has eroded, and has become more homogenized with an American political culture focusing on national politics. This will reverse only if that trend halts, with no guarantee attached that it will.

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