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With barely 30 percent of registered Minneapolis voters showing up at the polls Tuesday, we could be asking why so few among us exercised this essential right, even in a state known for having the highest voter turnout rate in the country.
Or we could face the fact that the percentage is about what was expected in a nonpresidential year, particularly a year which produced anxiety, in Minneapolis at least, around ranked-choice voting and a laundry list of mayoral candidates.
More interesting to me is why people did vote and what, ultimately, steered them to the candidates they chose. I wonder this because I don’t remember ever having as many conversations with friends, neighbors and colleagues so unsure of who’d be getting their vote for Minneapolis mayor, City Council and park board seats.
Some were still mulling the pros and cons of candidates on Tuesday morning. I admit to being one of them.
But experts on voting behavior had a pretty good sense of what we voters would do once behind the curtain, even if we didn’t.
Despite a charming post on startribune.com’s political blog that “Chris Kluwe & Josh Hartnett endorsements win elections,” (thanks gkatz!) the truth of our voting habits, or nonvoting habits, is drier and more predictable.
“Why didn’t people show up? It’s not that surprising,” said Andy Aoki, a professor of political science at Augsburg College, who specializes in American politics.
“Turnout is lower for local elections,” he said.
That leaves two types of voters heading to the polls in seasons like this.
The first are those Aoki calls “habitual voters.” These citizens vote most of the time, missing only on occasion.
“They considered voting their civic duty,” he said. “They’re also tuned in, more aware of what is at stake.”
The second group are those who are core supporters of a particular candidate.
He points to Abdi Warsame’s supporters as a “great example.” Warsame became the highest elected Somali-American in the country on Tuesday, winning a seat on the Minneapolis City Council in a landslide. His campaign mobilized about 1,500 voters to cast early ballots.
Warsame’s victory was only one factor leading Aoki to say, “it was very hard to have a conventional race.” With ranked-choice voting and 35 mayoral candidates, including Captain Jack Sparrow, even those habituals were feeling strangely unfocused.
So habit kicked in, helping us make our choices.
It’s no surprise that the most powerful influencer in how we vote is party identification. We get to the polls to make sure our political team wins.
“It’s a psychological attachment, a feeling of belonging to a party,” said Fred Slocum, associate professor of political science at Minnesota State University, Mankato.
With so many DFLers running this year, that powerful influence (for DFLers, at least) seemed less urgent. So most voters moved to the second biggest influencer, personal characteristics of the candidates.
“Honesty, work ethic, willingness to work across the aisle,” Slocum said.
Aoki agreed, adding that personal traits are generally more important to voters even than the issues candidates support or oppose.
“That’s why the candidates were very careful not to criticize their opponents,” Aoki said. “Instead, they’d just be silent.”
This hardly means that issues don’t matter. Just not as much.
“For some voters, abortion is their issue and you have to be pro-life or pro-choice or you will not get my vote,” Slocum said. “For others, it’s taxes or immigration.”
Also on the list: Yard signs. Turns out that yard signs do influence us, said Paul Goren, a University of Minnesota political scientist. “You always see these signs around town and we don’t pay much attention to them. But name recognition makes people more likely to cast a ballot,” he said.
“Sometimes, particularly with these off-year elections, people don’t have that much detailed information, so if they recognize that name, there’s a better than 50-50 chance they’ll pick that name on the ballot.”
Friends and neighbors can be influential, too, although you should count yourself lucky if you have friends or neighbors who could guide you through this quirky election. The friends I always turn to let me down this year. Splendidly informed, passionate about our city and politically active, they divided equally between candidates, leaving me hanging.
I consider this very good news for democracy. Aoki does, too.
“It seemed there were more high-caliber candidates and I struggled, too,” he said. “It’s encouraging, at least at the local level. If we had 10 votes, I could have ranked up to 10 candidates. It was encouraging.”