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The voter turnout game 

You can lead a horse to water but you can't make it vote. If you could, Louisiana lawmakers would have figured out a way by now to allow ponies inside voting booths. Barring that, they're stuck with the seemingly insurmountable challenge of increasing voter turnout.

  Rep. Jared Brossett, D-New Orleans, had the idea to extend early voting to Sundays, but lawmakers on the House and Governmental Affairs Committee balked at its more than $200,000 price tag. The committee and the full House, however, have advanced House Bill 501 by state Rep. Wesley Bishop, D-New Orleans, to allow 16-year-olds to register to vote (they still wouldn't be able to cast ballots until they are 18). Coupled with outreach in elementary and high schools, it could eventually make a difference.

  But really, who knows? Politicos and special interests have been trying to get some kind of consistent voter turnout in Louisiana for years, with mixed results. Now lawmakers, in what has become a minor theme in the ongoing session, are trying to legislate turnout.

  The most controversial measure comes courtesy of state Sen. Bret Allain, R-Franklin, who wants lawmakers to pass a constitutional amendment that would force local governments and political subdivisions to adhere to new guidelines for tax elections. The coming debate could be a barnburner, pitting the business lobby against school boards, parish councils, police juries, mayors and other local entities.

  Allain's Senate Bill 200 would require a minimum turnout of 20 percent of active voters to validate a local tax election. Under Allain's measure, even if a tax were to pass with no opposing votes, the ballot wouldn't count if turnout was one vote less than the proposed threshold. "If we're going to take people's hard-earned money, there should be a higher standard," Allain said.

  He contends local governments often schedule tax referenda during off-elections, where there are no high-profile races on the ballot and turnout will be low. "That ends up costing taxpayers more when they do that," he said. "They pay huge amounts of money to participate in off-elections."

  Last month, when the Orleans Parish runoffs for sheriff and City Council were on the ballot alongside three tax proposals, turnout was 25 percent. In February, when the mayor's race topped the ballot with six other tax questions, turnout was 35 percent. The last time Orleans saw a ballot with only propositions on it was in July 2008, when four property tax proposals produced a turnout of roughly 5 percent.

  Local governments aren't exactly thrilled about Allain's bill, which is being supported by the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry. "You're telling voters that their vote doesn't count," a lobbyist said. "You're leaving elections up to the guy who stays home and sits on his couch. Why don't we apply this same rule instead to legislative elections?"

  Allain said he's prepared for that argument. "We can't pick when we want to run," he said.

  In a more localized push, late last week the House was expected to debate House Bill 786 by state Rep. Nancy Landry, R-Lafayette, to reschedule school board elections in her hometown. The proposal would move them to the same ballot as statewide and gubernatorial elections, rather than the year before.

  Landry said that based on her own research, statewide elections have had an average turnout of 45 percent over the last four cycles. That's compared to a 25 percent turnout on average for Lafayette school board elections.

  So what's next? "Social Pressure and Voter Turnout: Evidence from a Large-Scale Field Experiment," a 2006 study conducted by Yale University, found voter turnout in Michigan increased by 8 percent when neighbors were mailed each others' voting records with a separate reminder to head to the polls. Sometimes social pressure is a strong enough incentive to make folks act.

  That small bit of sunshine, which allows the public to view voting records, is a major reason why politicians, at least the smart ones, always make sure they vote. They don't want the same kind of mail piece being sent out by their opponents.

  Given the number of lawmakers who like to disappear during a session when critical votes are taken, perhaps they could investigate "voter turnout" inside the Capitol. If they were voting for themselves instead of on controversial bills, no doubt turnout would be a lot higher.

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