Is low voter turnout always a sign that voters don't care, or that they think the items or races on the ballot aren't important? For decades, that was the conventional wisdom, but sometimes it's just a matter of timing.
For example, in 1982 the New Orleans City Council scheduled a referendum to transfer regulatory jurisdiction over New Orleans Public Service Inc. (NOPSI, now Entergy) from the council to the Louisiana Public Service Commission (LPSC). The council, at NOPSI's request, called the special election for the Saturday of Thanksgiving weekend. A few months before balloting, council members announced at a public meeting that the city could not afford to pay for the special election, which cost $400,000.
A lobbyist for NOPSI ran to the mic and said the utility would cover the entire cost of the election — if the council would keep it on the ballot in late November. The council agreed, and a small percentage of New Orleans voters transferred the utility's regulation to the LPSC. In 1985, after the LPSC raised local rates to pay for a nuclear power plant that voters didn't want, and led by the nascent Alliance for Affordable Energy, voters overwhelmingly (by a 70-30 percent vote) returned utility regulation to the council.
I mention all this because the citywide turnout for the Dec. 8 elections in New Orleans was a pitiful 9.98 percent. It was higher in City Council Districts B and E, where voters were choosing new council members, but even in those parts of town voter turnout was pathetically low. In District B it was barely 18 percent. In District E it was 16.4 percent.
When you consider that overall turnout was just under 10 percent citywide, it means that turnout in precincts outside the two contested council districts was probably less than 5 percent. That's understandable when you consider that the only item on the ballot in most parts of town was a proposition to raise the monthly 9-1-1 fee on local phone bills. That measure failed by a margin of nearly 2-to-1, yet less than one in 10 New Orleans voters cast ballots in that referendum.
Which brings me to the question of timing. Why was the 9-1-1 proposition not on the Nov. 6 ballot, along with the presidential race, congressional races, school board races and statewide constitutional amendments? If the council races had been decided in the November primary, it's likely many precincts would have seen a turnout of "zero" on Dec. 8 for the 9-1-1 proposition. Clearly, somebody either wasn't thinking when this referendum was scheduled, or somebody wanted to sabotage the future of 9-1-1 service in New Orleans.
There's a larger question: Why does Louisiana have so many special elections? We seem to have them year-round, with profoundly negative effects on turnout. I believe it's a leading cause of what I call voter fatigue. Voter fatigue is especially predictable — and pronounced — when special elections are called in "off" months such as December, January or any of the late spring or summer months.
There's a simple cure for voter fatigue. Lawmakers can set one statewide special election (with a runoff, if necessary) in the spring and one regular election in the fall — with an October primary and a November runoff. In federal elections, that will require U.S. Justice Department approval and possibly a court ruling, but it's worth the effort. Lawmakers should limit all special elections to those dates.
It not only would save taxpayers money, but it also would reduce voter fatigue. A side benefit would be letting Louisiana settle its congressional elections in November — like the rest of America.