Experts ask why Louisiana voters stayed home
Only about 36% of registered voters cast ballots in October. “This entire state didn’t show up,” said Ashley Shelton, president and CEO of the Power Coalition, a nonpartisan civic engagement group.
In an important election year — featuring races for governor, lieutenant governor, treasurer, secretary of state, attorney general and several local government seats — Louisiana saw historically low voter turnout. Experts are still looking at why.
Only about 36% of registered voters cast ballots in October’s primary election, marking the lowest turnout in a Louisiana gubernatorial primary since 2011. The general election in November saw even lower turnout, when only about 23% of registered voters made it to the polls.
Turnout was significantly down among Democrats and Black Louisianans. And it was down in areas that traditionally lean more Democratic, like New Orleans.
Primary election turnout in Orleans Parish was about 27% — down by more than 11% compared to the 2019 gubernatorial primary. And a lower percentage of Orleans residents voted for Shawn Wilson, the only high-profile Democratic candidate in the governor’s race, than for outgoing Gov. John Bel Edwards in 2019.
All told, Wilson brought in only 26% of the votes cast in the primary election. His main opponent, Republican Jeff Landry, brought in 52%.
“I think people had a foregone conclusion that every Democrat makes it to the runoff when that is absolutely not the case when you've got other voters more energized and engaged than you,” Wilson said in an interview after his loss.
Voter apathy is a major obstacle for Democrats
To win as a Democrat in Louisiana, statistics suggest Wilson would have needed to garner more than 90% of all Black votes in the state as well as one-third of the total white vote — a tough goal to reach in a staunchly red state.
But according to Wilson and other Black Louisiana leaders, the tougher task is overcoming apathy and a lack of engagement among voters.
“I think it benefits no one when people don’t vote,” Wilson said. “When you don’t vote, your vote actually counts against you. And in this case, it counted against our campaign.”
Baton Rouge Mayor Sharon Weston Broome said in a pre-election interview that voter apathy is high among Black Louisianans because of the state’s history of electing only white candidates to statewide positions.
Louisiana hasn’t had a Black governor since Reconstruction. And even though Black Louisianans account for one-third of the state’s total population, they hold a majority in only one of the state’s six congressional districts — though that might change in early 2024 after a recent federal court ruling that requires the Legislature to redraw the map.
Maxine Crump, CEO of Dialogue on Race Louisiana, a nonprofit group, said many Black Louisianans have a deep-seated mistrust of the government — and voting — because of what they see as white people in power using Black Americans and their votes to better their own political position.
Time and time again, Crump said, candidates have made promises to Black communities that they’ve failed to address once elected.
“Many Blacks who tried to vote or who tried to voice their complaints have given up,” she said. “They do not feel like they can make a difference.”
But Shelton, the Power Coalition leader, said it’s not just Black voters who are apathetic and complacent.
“Black voters certainly had a lot to lose, but we have a bigger issue when the majority of the state sits at home,” she said.
Greater turnout efforts needed
“We typically do canvassing, phone banking, texting,” Shelton said. “We do candidate forums. We do different types of events, like where we work with young people to ride bikes to the polls for early voting.”
Turnout from this election cycle, however, suggests that might not be enough. And those efforts pale in comparison to voter registration and mobilization efforts in other states like Georgia, which has seen a surge in minority and other voter turnout over the last decade.
Efforts to increase voter turnout in Georgia also include canvassing, phone banking and texting, bolstered by Georgia’s large number of civic engagement groups. There are more than 30 voter registration and education organizations in Georgia, according to Cause IQ, compared to nine in Louisiana.
Additionally, Georgia voters participate in events like voter rallies, registration drives and parties to get people to the polls.
Wilson said he has not witnessed that kind of “aggressive, active canvassing” in Louisiana. But Gov. John Bel Edwards’ reelection victory in 2019 suggests that type of canvassing might be what’s needed for a Democrat to win in Louisiana.
After failing to win outright in the primary election in 2019, Edwards’ campaign team focused on increasing his support from Black residents by visiting churches and locating residents who had voted in the 2018 midterm elections but had not voted in the 2019 primary.
Then they sent fellow churchgoers and neighbors to knock on their doors to motivate them to vote in the general election. They also used phone banking and other methods of voter outreach.
To overcome voter apathy, State Rep. Tammy Phelps, D-Shreveport, emphasized the importance of “connecting with the community on a personal level.” She said it is important to make sure that voters know candidates care and can see their faces.
Wilson agreed, adding that it’s important to tap into “grassroots tabletop issues,” like health care and living costs.
“I think they have to understand that their voice matters in terms of public policy,” Wilson said. “If they don't see themselves in the outcome of the election, then obviously they will not have the interest.”
Wilson and other leaders emphasized a need to engage voters beyond the typical four-month election cycle.
Progressive Democrats also blame the Louisiana Democratic Party for failing to do enough to turn out voters, and they are pushing for a change in leadership. Davante Lewis, a public service commissioner who is considering running for state party chairman, said leaders have to keep voters engaged at all times.
“You can’t stop,” he said. “That’s how you build momentum and get a movement going.”