Voices & Choices

Historically Low Turnout in Louisiana Senate Runoff

Historically Low Turnout in Louisiana Senate Runoff

On December 10th, 2016, Louisiana State Treasurer John Kennedy (R) won a runoff election for U.S. Senate against Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell (D) by a margin of 61 to 39 percent. The two candidates squared off in a runoff election after no candidate in a field of 23 came close to receiving a majority of the vote (50 percent +1) in the general election on November 8th, 2016. Voter turnout in the runoff, which took place four weeks after the general election, was just 29.2 percent--down from 67.8 percent in the general election--making it one of the lowest-attended U.S. Senate elections in the state in recent years. 

Louisiana is unique in that there are no primary elections before Election Day in November for the state's congressional elections. Instead, candidates of all parties run on the same ballot on Election Day, including more than one candidate from the same political party. If no candidate wins a majority (50% +1) of the vote, the state holds a runoff election between the top two vote-getters. Since this Senate contest was for an open seat, the field of candidates was particularly crowded. At the outset of the race, some 23 candidates decided to run: eight Democrats, eight Republicans, and seven independent or third party candidates. While the race eventually winnowed down to about 6 competitive candidates by November 8th, there was little chance of any candidate receiving a majority and avoiding a runoff.

While the turnout on December 10th was particularly low, significant declines in turnout between the general election and the runoff are quite common, not to mention the fact that it is quite expensive for the state to pay for a second state-wide election. In 2014, for example, incumbent Senator Mary Landrieu and challenger Bill Cassidy faced each other in a runoff election four weeks after the general election, and turnout dropped from 51.5 percent to 43.6 percent.

Cities in California, Colorado, Maine, Maryland and Minnesota use ranked-choice voting — also known as instant runoff voting — as an alternative to runoffs to avoid the low turnout and extra costs associated with holding a second election. Louisiana already uses ranked ballots for military and overseas voters, so that those voters can rank their preferences ahead of time should a runoff be necessary. Legislators should look for ways to expand the use of ranked choice voting to avoid low-turnout elections like the one on December 10th.


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