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Minn. primary turnout flirts with record low numbers

  • Article by: COREY MITCHELL
  • Star Tribune
  • August 15, 2012 - 8:18 PM

WASHINGTON - Minnesota voters sat out Tuesday's midsummer election in near-record numbers, producing the state's second-worst primary turnout in 62 years.

Despite several competitive congressional and legislative primaries, only about 9 percent of eligible voters cast ballots.

The lack of competitive statewide races may have led many voters to stay home or not file absentee ballots, Secretary of State Mark Ritchie said.

"There were no real drivers of turnout," he said.

Since 1950, the only other election where turnout fell below 10 percent came in the 2004 primary, when 7.7 percent of eligible voters went to the polls, according to Ritchie's office.

Ritchie and election officials from two of the state's largest counties -- Hennepin and St. Louis -- expect the uncharacteristically low turnout to bounce back come November, if historical trends hold true.

Dating to the 1960s, Minnesota has recorded voter turnout below 20 percent in primaries during presidential election years. In each of those years, turnout shot up in the general election, often topping 70 percent.

"Most folks are focused on November," said Rachel Smith, Hennepin County's election manager.

Hot races get cool reception

Tuesday's numbers were down sharply from two years ago, when about 16 percent of eligible voters cast ballots. That was the first year that Minnesota held its primary in August rather than September.

After a change in federal law, legislators pushed the primary up to give absentee voters, such as military personnel stationed abroad, access to ballots 45 days before an election.

But the move now pits the vote against vacations for many Minnesotans.

Several legislative candidates facing tough primary challenges had to retool their campaigns to not only reinforce why they were the better choice but also to remind people to vote in the August primary.

During the 2010 primary, DFLers headed to the polls to select their candidate for governor in a fierce and expensive three-way race.

This election, the hotly contested contests were regional and generated only modest interest, leaving some unsuccessful candidates wondering whether the low turnout sunk their chances.

In the Eighth Congressional District DFL primary, candidate Jeff Anderson pinned his election hopes on a huge turnout from Duluth and the Iron Range.

Anderson, an Ely native and a former Duluth City Council president, won support on the Iron Range but was unable to sufficiently boost turnout on his home turf.

In St. Louis County, the Eighth District's DFL base, roughly 22 percent of eligible voters cast ballots.

But the numbers lagged behind the 2010 primary election, when 26 percent of eligible voters participated, said Donald Dicklich, the St. Louis County auditor.

The DFL candidates in the race spent more than $1.5 million combined leading up to the primary election, but it wasn't enough to bring voters out in droves.

Former state Sen. Tarryl Clark, who blew away the field with fundraising, brought in about $1.1 million, or about $62 for every primary vote she won. She still placed a distant second.

In the end, former U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, who had the DFL endorsement, won the race to take on Republican U.S. Rep. Chip Cravaack.

"That's disappointing, because it was an important election," said Anderson, who placed third and pledged to support Nolan's campaign. "But it's a challenge to [get] people out when you're competing with summer weather."

Corey Mitchell is a correspondent in the Star Tribune's Washington Bureau. Twitter: @CMitchellStrib

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