The second Tuesday of every March is Township Day. It’s Election Day in almost 1,700 townships across the state and when polls close, it’s time for the annual township meetings, where budgets are set, tax levies are decided and every resident has a chance to step up and talk about whatever’s on their mind.
“It’s the closest government to the people,” said Gary Pedersen, executive director of the Minnesota Association of Townships, who saw plenty of Township Tuesdays during his two decades on the Elmira Township board in Olmsted County.
The annual elections and meetings, he said, are “grass-roots governance at its best and its finest.”
In Castle Rock Township, after polls closed on a hotly contested township board supervisor’s race, about 30 of the community’s 1,400 residents gathered for their annual meeting to talk about budget planning, road projects and other burning issues — like why it’s so hard to get good broadband access in this corner of Dakota County.
“It’s a great tradition and it’s a great chance to see what’s going on in your local government,” said Castle Rock Township Clerk Barbara Lang. “If you have a concern, you have a right to bring it up.”
Township Tuesday turnout is usually pretty light, although large crowds can show up when there’s a contested seat or a hot-button issue up for debate. Some townships skip the election entirely and conduct all their business at the annual meeting. There are budgets to set, and levies to approve that will fill the general fund and pay for road and bridge work and emergency services in the township for the coming year.
Most importantly, the annual meetings are a chance for township residents to come in and tell their neighbors and elected leaders just what’s on their mind.
“People come in and let the township officers know what the issues are,” Pedersen said. “There’s not many organizations where you have that hands-on approach.”
In Olmsted County, he said, topics raised at the annual meeting might include neighbors worried about frac sand mining, or interested in plans for a proposed Zip Rail between the Twin Cities and Rochester, or eager to get into a debate about feed lots.
The Minnesota Secretary of State’s office does not track Township Tuesday turnout or election results, which feature plenty of write-in candidates and surprise upsets.
Townships have been voting like this for the past 150 years, but they weren’t all doing it on the second Tuesday of March until 1970, when then-Gov. Rudy Perpich declared the date Township Day. Built into the law is the provision that if the weather is too foul on Township Tuesday, the elections will be rescheduled to the following week — a luxury voters in the General Election don’t have.
In 2009, new legislation gave townships the option of shifting their elections to November, to save money and manpower or to boost turnout. About 590 townships now vote in November rather than March.
Townships are Minnesota’s original form of government, written into the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 as a way of dividing the territory into tidily governable squares, 6 miles by 6 miles in size.
Today, Minnesota’s 1,790 townships still tend to be 36 square miles or smaller, with populations ranging from more than 10,000 down to the single digits.