This election cycle, Louisiana voters are casting ballots for a new slate of statewide officials and state lawmakers. But just a handful of those races, such as the 14-candidate gubernatorial race to replace the term-limited Gov. John Bel Edwards, draw competitors and funds.
Only six of the 16 state legislative seats in Orleans Parish up for election in the Oct. 14 primary have two or more candidates running. The other 10 are uncontested. Three out of four local judicial elections in New Orleans are uncontested. And the race for the District 2 seat on the State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, the rulemaking body for Louisiana’s public schools, is also uncontested.
Far fewer people tend to throw their hats into the ring for these down-ballot races, and far fewer voters are informed about who’s running and what’s at stake in those races, according to Robert Collins, professor of public policy at Dillard University.
But the races in which New Orleans voters have the most sway are those down-ballot elections, said Bruce Reilly, deputy director of the statewide voter engagement group Voters Organized to Educate.
“When people talk about quality of life, they are thinking of their local infrastructure, schools, safety, and housing,” Reilly said. “These people [state legislators] live in our communities and deal with the same issues we do, while statewide or federal politicians likely [have] never stepped foot on your street in their lives.”
In one race, State House District 99, the incumbent Rep. Candace Newell’s sole challenger dropped out, meaning she’ll be automatically reelected. In another race, BESE District 2, one of two candidates was disqualified, leaving the remaining candidate — the educator Sharon Latten Clark — as the automatic winner.
There is one notable exception to these otherwise quiet races — State House District 91, where a race between incumbent Rep. Mandie Landry and fellow Democrat Madison O’Malley has illustrated deep schisms in the state’s Democratic party and drawn considerable media attention.
The general lack of competition comes from prospective challengers not having enough money to conduct a campaign, especially against incumbents, Collins said.
“The vast majority of members of the Louisiana Legislature are going unchallenged if they’re incumbents. Challenging an incumbent, knocking off an incumbent takes a lot of money,” he said. “Elections have just become so expensive that the average person, the average middle-class person cannot really afford to run for office.”
Millions of dollars have poured into this year’s race for governor, but far less money gets spent in races for legislative or judicial seats.
The stark contrast in spending illustrates why a lot of down-ballot races get less attention from journalists and voters, Collins said.
“Most of the money that’s spent in elections is spent in the top-of-the-ballot races. So people are going to see ads for governor, for lieutenant governor, for president, etcetera,” Collins said. “And so if they’re not on television — and a lot of the local races, a lot of the candidates don’t have the money to go on television — then people just don’t hear about those.”
That such races are undercovered and uncontested indicates larger problems in the political process, Reilly said.
“Elections are supposed to be a competition of ideas,” he said. “We live in such a partisan divide, where people reflexively vote for their team, which discourages people from entering politics if they don’t see a path to victory, and requires a minority political party to be strategic in asserting their ideas.”
Reilly acknowledged that becoming an educated voter takes a lot of time and energy — a luxury that many may not have in their day-to-day lives.
For lifelong New Orleans resident Jennifer “Mama Jen” Turner, casting a ballot in local races has always been important. Turner, who works at the Community Book Center located on Bayou Road in the 7th Ward, said she regularly follows and votes in down-ballot elections.
Turner said that while New Orleanians have a duty to vote, the civic responsibility doesn’t end there. “We need to keep them accountable for what they do,” she said.
Election Day is this Saturday (Oct. 14). Read Verite’s Orleans Parish voter guide for more information on this year’s candidates and where and how to vote.
Help inform our coverage as we build a newsroom for and by the people of New Orleans:
Please take a few minutes to share your thoughts with us by answering each question.