Secretary of State Tom Schedler likes to brag about Louisiana voter registration. It’s among the tops in the nation.
Eighty-five percent of Louisiana’s 3.4 million residents who are eligible to vote are registered.
Schedler’s on a mission to identify and sign-up the remaining 15 percent.
But as Schedler is quick to point out, getting people to register to vote isn’t Louisiana’s biggest problem when it comes to elections.
It’s lack of voter participation.
“Even if we achieve 98 percent registration, so what if we have 3 to 5 percent up to 50 percent vote, which is now the high water mark,” said Schedler
The Oct. 19 elections provided the most recent example of the voter apathy. Elections were held in 49 of Louisiana’s 64 parishes.
In most locales, voter turnout was lucky to hit 20 percent. In some elections, not a single voter showed up at some precincts as poll workers waited.
The leading example: the 14-candidate race to fill the vacant congressional 5th District seat. The special election attracted a paltry 21.5 percent of possible voters, despite candidate appeals both in person and via the airwaves.
That looks good compared with parish-wide races in which taxes and tax renewals were on the ballot.
In East Baton Rouge, voters renewed a property tax for Sheriff’s office operations that generates $24.7 million a year. Six percent of the parish’s nearly 280,000 voters participated.
A property tax dedicated to mosquito abatement died in Livingston Parish in a low-turnout election that determined whether the service would continue. Fifteen percent of parish voters went to the polls.
In Jefferson Parish, a property tax that funded about 5 percent of the school system’s budget passed with 11 percent voter participation.
A parishwide half-cent sales tax dedicated to the parish jail died in Tangipahoa. Seventeen percent of eligible voters participated. The same voters approved a library tax renewal.
There were few shining or semi-shining lights when it came to voter turnout.
An exception came in West Feliciana where an election for parish president brought 43 percent of eligible voters to the polls. It was an historic election for West Feliciana’s first parish president.
In Jeanerette, a special election for mayor prompted a 48 percent voter turnout.
“It’s depressing. It’s concerning,” said Schedler. “In some ways the mere fact they didn’t go vote maybe it’s an expression of their frustration.” He said the frustration with the politics in Washington, D.C., is filtering down to the state and voters too are tired of so many elections.
Schedler said the elections that brought a higher level of participation are those closer to home “in which they see value” and “know the persons” such as the local elections for mayor and parish president. Louisiana has taken steps to make voting more convenient, thinking that might boost participation.
Most significantly are the changes in early voting. There are days in advance of elections both weekdays and Saturdays, during which people can go to registrar of voters offices to exercise their constitutional right to vote. Elections has also established satellite offices in some areas to make early voting more accessible. There’s also a national award-winning mobile app that brings information to voters about what’s on the ballot and where they vote.
“We have more tools in the tool box than ever, yet we have these kinds of outcomes,” said Schedler.
Schedler’s looking at a new pocketbook approach. Elections cost the same amount of money to conduct, no matter the turnout. So he’s calculating the cost per vote — the lower the turnout, the higher the cost per vote.
“Here’s an example of waste in government that’s rectifiable by voting,” Schedler said.
But at the end of the day, Schedler said, “it’s personal responsibility for people. You can’t drag people to the polls.”
Marsha Shuler cover elections policy issues for The Advocate’s Capitol news bureau. Her email address is email@example.com