Asia Torbert has ideas for what the city could do better in north Minneapolis. She wants more activities aimed at children ages 10 to 14, and she wants police to take more “time and consideration” when dealing with residents.
But she hasn’t been paying attention to the Minneapolis elections coming in November, and that’s common — in north Minneapolis and across the city.
“I don’t really watch that stuff,” said Torbert, 27, standing in front of the hair salon where she works on Lowry Avenue. “People don’t talk about that.”
Voter turnout for Minneapolis elections has risen dramatically over the past 12 years, but it’s still low. Only a third of registered voters went to the polls to elect a mayor and council in 2013, with a high concentration of the vote coming from wealthier, whiter parts of town.
This year, with several serious contenders for mayor, eight competitive council races and a local electorate perhaps prodded to action by Donald Trump’s victory in November, candidates and party officials expect turnout to rise again in November.
How much it rises will depend on the extent to which an indifferent majority of Minneapolitans can be persuaded to care about what happens at City Hall.
“I think more people are paying attention to local elections. I hear from voters that they’re tired of gridlock at the federal and state level, and they see progress happening at the city,” said Lisa Bender, who easily won the DFL endorsement for re-election in Uptown and the neighborhoods east of Lake Calhoun. “But we still have a lot of work to do.”
Quiet over North
Turnout more than doubled from 2005 to 2013, and rose everywhere in the city. But participation remains uneven.
More than a third of voters in the last city election came from the three wards that run along the city’s southern border, a band of the city that’s generally wealthy and disproportionately white. In the 13th Ward, which runs around the south and west of Lake Harriet, nearly half of registered voters went to the polls.
Meanwhile, turnout in north Minneapolis’ Fourth and Fifth wards was under 25 percent.
Terrence Brown, 31, who was leaving the North Regional Library on Lowry Avenue, said his needs and his neighbors’ needs are too pressing to get involved in what feels like a distant city election. “There’s no time to pay attention to the election,” Brown said.
The neighborhood’s problems are complicated, he said, and there’s no simple solution. Politicians who want more people to participate on the North Side will have to make a concerted effort to connect with residents. “If you want to make the people involved, you have to get involved with the people,” he said.
Stephanie Gasca, one of the three candidates for City Council challenging Barb Johnson in the Fourth Ward, said door-knocking has shown her that while many aren’t tuned in to city politics, there’s an appetite for engagement.
“We have come across a lot of folks who are not aware that there’s an election happening this year,” Gasca said. “I’ve had conversations with multiple people who have said that a City Council candidate has never knocked on their door before, so people are excited to just talk and have someone at their door wanting to listen.”
Energy toward November
Across the DFL-dominated city, there’s reason to believe the energy expended in the mayoral campaign and multiple tough council races will turn out more voters in November.
Mayor Betsy Hodges faces two well-funded challengers, Tom Hoch and Council Member Jacob Frey; popular state representative Ray Dehn, who bested the competition in the Minneapolis DFL convention; high-profile community leaders like Nekima Levy-Pounds and Al Flowers, and an energetic campaign from young filmmaker Aswar Rahman.
“I think having a contested mayoral race with four top-tier candidates will guarantee a higher turnout,” said Dan McConnell, chairman of the Minneapolis DFL.
There are also 43 people running for City Council, and several of the races promise to be close.
DFL caucus turnout in April, which set the stage for endorsement proceedings in the late spring and summer, was double compared to four years ago. Some campaigns, such as Dehn’s, are banking on expanding the electorate.
Council Member Bender, who’s lent her support to several council candidates challenging incumbents across the city, said it’s hard work to turn out new voters, but “when you connect what you’re doing to people’s daily lives, it’s not that hard to get them interested.”
She said she thinks voter turnout will be higher this year.
“I’m not sure it will be dramatically higher,” Bender said, “but I hope so.”