Jeremy Alford

Democrats prepared for historic turnout

by Jeremy Alford

Preliminary estimates from early voting suggest there was a 38 percent African-American turnout statewide earlier this week, with Democrats outnumbering Republicans overall 2 to 1. If it’s any kind of indication as to how Louisiana’s black communities will vote Tuesday, the long-predicted surge connected to the presidential campaign of Barack Obama could be larger than anyone thought.

New Orleans pollster Ed Renwick has also released a survey that shows Obama nipping at the heels of GOP nominee John McCain in Louisiana. Other recent polls have had McCain leading by 10 points or more. Bradley Beychok, coordinated campaign director for the Louisiana Democratic Party, says the spike is due largely to an energized volunteer base (more than 12,000 at last count) that has stepped forward to assist Obama’s efforts. Traditionally, that kind of force has to be recruited. “When you watch people stand in line for six hours to early vote and they don’t complain, and you see the kind of numbers that are out there, you just know you’re watching history,” Beychok says. “We could easily set the record next week.”

Shreveport demographer and political analyst Elliot Stonecipher, says there could still be a substantial anti-Obama turnout that would even out the bounce, but it’s just another unknown factor in this unique election cycle. Additionally, it was a Democratic strategy to get African-Americans to vote early and it's possible that lower-than-expected numbers could crop up on Election Day as a result. “Everyone is set up for this huge turnout, and if we don’t get it it’ll become another promised trend that didn’t materialize,” Stonecipher says.

Set against the backdrop of this unprecedented voter turnout are growing concerns that the state’s registrars of voters purged eligible voters from the rolls during July and August using a 21-day challenge law that allows them to remove voters if they die, get convicted of a felony, move, provide false information or other factors. Some registrars contend they're dealing with fraudulent registrations resulting from aggressive Democratic voter drives, but the New Orleans-based Louisiana Justice Institute, a civil rights group, has unearthed a handful of names that have been removed from local rolls in error.

Although it’s unknown how many voters were wrongly yanked from the rolls, a majority of the names from the original purge were Democrats and independents. Stonecipher says election studies suggest that as much as 10 percent of such purges sometimes consist of names that should not have been removed. In preparation, the state Democratic Party has attorneys in nearly every parish that are assigned to precincts. And if an unregistered voter does show up to cast a ballot, poll workers will have paper provisional ballots on hand. A panel of election officials will decide after the fact which votes should count.

In recent days, however, parish officials have realized that they might not be properly prepared and have requested more paper ballots. Jacques Berry, press secretary for Secretary of State Jay Dardenne, says there are more paper ballots being issued this year than in any other recent election. For instance, approximately 9,200 provisional ballots have been shipped off to Orleans Parish. During the congressional race of 2006, Orleans Parish requested fewer than 1,000 paper ballots. “We’re prepared for this,” Berry says. “We’ve doubled up in many of the parishes, and we’ve even doubled up on the back-ups.”