Minneapolitans love to brag about the intensity of their political engagement — and not without justification. In presidential elections, some Minneapolis precincts are among the state's voter turnout leaders. Precinct caucuses in the city's dominant DFL Party can attract hundreds.
But Mill City Citizens won't be bragging about the turnout they chalked up in the Nov. 5 city election. It was a ho-hum 34 percent, City Clerk Casey Carl announced Tuesday. That's a better showing than in 2005 and 2009, when Mayor R.T. Rybak was seeking re-election. But it's down considerably from 1993, the last time the mayoral race did not include an incumbent. (See box at right for the turnout rundown.)
Meanwhile, in St. Paul, the lack of a competitive mayor's race drove turnout down to embarrassing territory. Barely 14 percent of registered voters cast ballots in the election that returned Mayor Chris Coleman to office for a third term.
We've heard a number of plausible but contradictory explanations for voters' weak showings.
In Minneapolis, the overpopulated 35-candidate mayoral race has been credited with either boosting turnout by building interest, or depressing it by overtaxing the voters with too much candidate homework.
Ranked-choice voting (RCV), which this year had its second exercise in a Minneapolis election, reportedly either turned voters on with more chances to express preferences, or turned them off with worry that they would be confused and embarrassed at the polls.
The candidates alternately have been praised for running positive, respectful campaigns and faulted for failing to generate excitement or differentiate themselves sufficiently from the pack.
Even the city's nation-leading rebound from the Great Recession has factored into some turnout analyses. In August, the Twin Cities registered the lowest unemployment rate among the nation's biggest metropolitan areas (in a tie with Oklahoma City). When things go well, voters become complacent and stay home, the story goes.
No matter how much credence one assigns to these turnout theories, they have one thing in common: They all describe local phenomena.
But as journalist George Packer notes in the latest issue of the New Yorker, a dip in voter turnout in municipal elections is also part of a national trend — a troubling one. It suggests that increasingly, people in U.S. cities are disengaged and alienated from the American project of self-governance.
The contrast between this year's turnout and that seen only a few years ago in off-year elections is striking. In New York, where a lively mayoral race made national headlines, turnout was a dismal 24 percent. Twenty years ago, it was 57 percent. A Detroit news organization boasted that with 25 percent turnout on Tuesday, its voters had outperformed New York's — and those in Seattle, Pittsburgh, Atlanta, Houston and Miami. Each of those cities saw higher turnouts a generation ago. In Los Angeles' open mayoral election in June, turnout was 23 percent, down from 76 percent in 1969.
As the urban media organization NextCity.org lamented, "Nobody votes for mayor anymore."
That's an unsettling conclusion. Democracy won't be trusted to deliver desirable government if it is the handiwork of a small, elite, ideologically skewed share of the electorate. Already, leading analysts including Minnesota native Norman Ornstein at the American Enterprise Institute attribute gridlock in Washington to political processes controlled by too few voters who think too much alike.
Improving participation in local elections belongs on the agendas of state and local elections stewards. Among a number of possible strategies, a favorite of ours has been moving elections from Tuesdays to a two-day span, Saturday and Sunday. Those are days when more people have more free time to attend to civic responsibilities. Tuesday elections are a throwback to the transportation and worship patterns of the early 19th century, according to the advocacy group Why Tuesday? Voting on Tuesday is not constitutionally required, and it has little practical advantage today.
The embrace and implementation of ranked-choice voting in Minneapolis and St. Paul shows that Twin Cities voters are willing to adapt elections to bring about a better reflection of majority will. Moving the balloting to weekends would be a worthy next project for local election reformers.