Analysis: Low voter turnout boosts case for elections change
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Secretary of State Tom Schedler has complained for years that Louisiana holds too many unnecessary elections, making it harder to draw interest from voters tired of repeatedly trekking to the polls. This fall’s statewide election cycle is emboldening his criticism and may help his push for change.
The October election drew a dismal 14 percent participation rate statewide from voters asked to select a new state treasurer and determine whether to tweak tax language in the Louisiana Constitution. That was the lowest turnout for a statewide election in at least 35 years.
Schedler, the state’s chief elections officer since 2010, anticipates voter turnout for the Nov. 18 statewide runoff for treasurer will fall even lower, to about 12 percent or 13 percent.
If the shockingly low turnout isn’t enough to make lawmakers consider Schedler’s drive to shrink the slate of electoral contests, there’s this tidbit: Louisiana, awash in financial problems, is spending $6 million to hold those elections in which few people are bothering to cast ballots.
“You think the rank-and-file voter out there really cares who the treasurer is, as evidenced by the turnout? It’s not motivating anybody to do anything,” Schedler said. “I think this election probably is making my case.”
The state wouldn’t have saved every dollar of that amount if the special election for treasurer hadn’t been held. Some municipalities still would have had their regularly scheduled local elections.
But local election costs are split with local governments, so the secretary of state’s office estimates it would have spent less than $1 million if the treasurer’s race hadn’t been on the ballot. (Schedler believes lawmakers wouldn’t have put the constitutional amendments before voters this fall if the special election wasn’t already set.)
“What would you do with that money? You could put it to TOPS (the free college tuition program). You could fix a bridge or road,” Schedler said.
The special statewide election will fill the remaining two years of the treasurer’s current term after Republican John Kennedy was elected to the U.S. Senate.
On Saturday, voters will choose between Democrat Derrick Edwards, a New Orleans area lawyer with an accounting degree, and Republican John Schroder, an ex-state lawmaker, former law enforcement official and businessman from Covington.
Kennedy’s top aide, Ron Henson, has been working as interim treasurer until someone is elected.
Louisiana has long had a tradition of calling special elections outside the scheduled March, April, October and November dates, with supporters saying elected jobs should not be left vacant for risk of depriving people of representation.
For the 60-month period from January 2005 through December 2010, Louisiana held 70 elections. Not all were statewide. Schedler called that number “absurd,” saying it was more than double the elections held by other Southern states.
He’s already has had some success lessening the number of elections held annually across Louisiana, first by drawing attention to his concerns and then by persuading lawmakers to toughen the rules for holding special elections, such as to fill vacant state legislative seats.
In the 60-month period from January 2011 through December 2015, Louisiana was down to 31 elections, instead of 70.
The special election for state treasurer may build traction to go further.
Schedler intends to ask lawmakers in their 2018 regular legislative session to consider changing the way that statewide elected jobs are filled if someone leaves the position early.
Louisiana’s constitution requires if a statewide elected official other than governor or lieutenant governor leaves before the term is complete, the vacancy is filled by the official’s first assistant if the unexpired term is a year or less. If the remaining part of the term is more than a year, an election is required.
Schedler wants a first assistant to fill the remaining portion of a term if a statewide elected official — secretary of state, treasurer, attorney general, agriculture commissioner or insurance commissioner — exits office early, no matter how much of the term remains.
He’s confident this fall’s election cycle, with voter turnout in the low teens, could build a successful argument with lawmakers.
“This is doing my work for me, this election,” Schedler said.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Melinda Deslatte has covered Louisiana politics for The Associated Press since 2000. Follow her at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte