Alford: Was Monroe mayoral race an electoral wakeup call?


Earlier this month, before he was sworn into office for the very first time, Monroe Mayor Friday Ellis turned heads in a major way. His 52% primary win against a five-candidate field that included his Democratic predecessor, Jamie Mayo, was a shot heard across Louisiana’s political world.

Few were as surprised as Ellis’ campaign manager, Jason Hebert of The Political Firm. While Hebert was confident he had a solid candidate, he wasn’t prepared for the extent that early voting pushed Ellis over the edge.

Early voting accounted for 46.5% of the total vote haul, of which Ellis, a rookie candidate and an independent, notched 59% against an incumbent.

“We set our sights on early voting at the outset of the campaign, but we didn’t know how big it was going to be,” Hebert says. “We do races in Texas and sometimes see 52 percent, but it was the highest watermark we’d seen back home in Louisiana.”

Mail-in voting for the July 11 election also set a record, quadrupling in size statewide compared to the 2016 presidential primary ballot. With so many votes up for grabs across different venues, political professionals are scrambling to adapt to this new but not totally unexpected landscape.

Based on trends holding or building, it means campaigns need to spend sooner in the cycle and consultants and candidates must plot even earlier. It also means the November general will play host to three different elections of suddenly equalized importance.

The first round will be early voting, which stretches from Oct. 20 to Oct. 27, excluding that Sunday. The difference-maker in the July election was that the early voting process was amended to add an extra week to accommodate for COVID-19.

Some politicos are now pushing to make the second week permanent, arguing it increases voter engagement. “I don’t think we’re putting that genie back in the bottle,” Hebert says.

The second round will arrive via mail-in ballots, for which the deadline to request an absentee will be Oct. 30. Anticipating that the July mail-in ballots could potentially surge alongside early voting, Hebert’s team invested more than usual in chase mail. A sort of reminder for voters, chase mail is used to encourage those who requested an absentee to finish the job.

Finally, the third and final round will arrive in the form of good, old-fashioned in-booth voting, which takes place Nov. 3. Uncertainty clouds that date, as any increase in COVID-19 cases could depress voter participation on Election Day. Campaign managers and candidates will have little choice but to hedge their bets—and their funds.

This kind of election cycle has been in the works for a while, with the past few years featuring consistent upticks in early voting. 

Turnout for the July 11 primary was higher than expected, with Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin initially predicting 10% participation. On election day, the figure was actually 21%.

Not everyone views the change in early voting and mail-in ballots as a watershed moment. Some view it as a flash in the pan, a trend that will subside as COVID-19 becomes a memory. With no reliable timeframe for when that might happen, however, campaign managers and consultants have no choice but to accept these factors as part of the new political reality in Louisiana.

So the buzzwords are sooner and faster, because the July upset in Ouachita Parish, if nothing else, proved that the earliest bird can turn the worm. “Monroe is a small part of a larger state, but that election was a wakeup call on both sides to finally start taking early voting and absentee voting seriously,” Hebert says. 

Jeremy Alford publishes LaPolitics Weekly, a newsletter on Louisiana politics, at LaPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter, or on Facebook. He can be reached at JJA@LaPolitics.com