You’ve heard plenty about the lame, no-good, downright undemocratic turnout in this year’s election — a miserable 36 percent nationally, the lowest since World War II, and a barely respectable 50 percent in Minnesota.
Now for some good turnout news: In the Fifth Congressional District, anchored by Minneapolis, turnout was up nearly 11,000 votes from the previous presidential midterm election, in 2010. That’s about a 0.5-percentage-point gain, compared with a 5-percentage-point turnout decline statewide.
In 2006, the Fifth District had the lowest turnout among the state’s eight congressional districts. This year it was in fifth place. In first place was the state’s most affluent district, the west-suburban Third; then came the Eighth, Second and Seventh, all of which saw livelier congressional races than U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison had in the Fifth.
Ellison was elected to a fifth term with more votes than only eight of his fellow Democrats in the U.S. House, even though 46 of his caucus-mates represent districts with higher Democratic-voting indices.
For an explanation, I called a fellow I guessed had something to do with the Fifth’s trend-bucking — Keith Ellison. “We prioritize turnout,” he said of his own campaign.
So do a lot of politicians. But the priority for most of them is identifying and turning out their own supporters. When Ellison talks turnout, he has a more inclusive notion. “I tell our people, ‘If all we’ve done is get me re-elected, we haven’t done much of anything.’ Winning is like our fifth priority. Boosting turnout is tops for us.”
I wasn’t surprised to hear it. When Ellison first visited the Star Tribune Editorial Board as a new candidate for the Minnesota House in 2002, he didn’t come to talk about education, taxes and the rest of the usual state issues. On his mind that day was the chronically low voter turnout in the near-north Minneapolis district he sought to represent. He spoke so fervently about wanting to convince more of his future constituents to vote that the conversation stands out in memory 12 years later.
I later learned that Ellison came by his passion for voting at an early age. His maternal grandfather, Frank Martinez, was head of the NAACP in Nachitoches, La., during the struggle for minority voting rights that culminated in enactment of the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965. Martinez’s daughter Clida spoke often of the family’s fear as the local Ku Klux Klan burned a cross across the street from their home one night.
As a young mother in Detroit, Clida Martinez Ellison related that story to her sons each Election Day as she marched them to the polls so they could watch her vote. Those trips made a lasting impression on a future congressman. Voting, he says now, is “as much a family tradition as a recipe.” (Speaking of recipes, Clida was recently featured on Mo Rocca’s Cooking Channel show, “My Grandmother’s Ravioli.” Her recipe for Louisiana gumbo sounds terrific.)
Ellison is a DFLer in a safe DFL seat. He could coast through campaigns.
Instead, he and his staff set turnout goals for each of the 12 state Senate districts included in CD5, and communicated those goals to the DFL Party’s officers in those districts. Together, they charted plans to make face-to-face contact with the quota of potential voters needed to reach their goals.
“It’s a team approach,” Ellison said, enlisting community leaders and clergy as well as politicians. Special efforts were made to knock on doors in apartment buildings. At least one North Side church chartered a bus to take “souls to the polls” for early voting. Events featured a song about voting written by Minneapolis songwriter André Cymone, a former guitarist for Prince.
That work is grounded in Ellison’s belief that old-fashioned retail campaigning is more effective than phone blitzes and reputation-smearing ad campaigns. “Money is hard to overcome, but I believe that somebody at your door talking to you can defeat a scurrilous TV ad. The real key is door-to-door politics. That’s how you create a culture of engagement. That what can restore democracy.”
Ellison is proud of helping pull CD5 out of the turnout cellar it was in when he was first elected to Congress in 2006. But he’s not satisfied — nor should he be. Dramatically lower election participation persists in the city’s poorest neighborhoods. For example: in District 59B — Ellison’s old state House district — 11,103 people voted on Nov. 4. A few miles away in southwest Minneapolis District 61A, the total was 17,625.
Closing that disparity will require more than door-knocking, Ellison says. It will take campaign messages that resonate with people who are spending half of their take-home pay on rent alone and struggling to feed their families. It will take faster re-enfranchisement of former offenders after they’ve served prison sentences. It will take moving voting to a Saturday, a Sunday or both, when more people are off work.
Ellison is working on all of those things, too, pointing to the unrest last week in Ferguson, Mo., as fresh impetus. He noted that even in the wake of the outcry over the shooting death of an unarmed African-American 18-year-old by police officer Darren Wilson, turnout in this year’s election in Ferguson was 42 percent — of registered voters. In Minnesota, turnout is measured as a percentage of eligible voters, registered or not. Unlike Minnesota, Missouri does not allow voters to register at the polls on Election Day.
“Part of what they are suffering from in Ferguson is a deficit of democracy,” Ellison said. “When that happens, you have social disruption instead.”
What he calls “a culture of voting” needs to be at the heart of America’s culture if representative democracy is to survive and thrive. In Missouri last week, the nation caught a glimpse of what could happen in more places if that culture fades.
Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at firstname.lastname@example.org.