Minnesota’s civic pride took a hit when voter turnout slipped in last Tuesday’s election to 50 percent, by Secretary of State Mark Ritchie’s postelection reckoning, or 51.3 percent, according to a preliminary accounting by the United States Elections Project. That latter number puts Minnesota’s turnout at sixth-highest in the nation (see accompanying text).
Ranking sixth among 50 isn’t so bad, one might shrug, were the result not a departure from what had been a decadeslong pattern. Only twice — in 1974 and 1986 — since 1950 has Minnesota’s turnout rate been 50 percent or lower. Neither of those years included a contest for the U.S. Senate, as this year did.
More than bragging rights rides on election turnout numbers. They are a key indicator of citizen willingness to share in the responsibility of governing this state and nation. Throughout its history, a high level of civic participation has been a defining Minnesota characteristic and a positive contributor to its quality of life. If fewer citizens choose to vote, something fundamental about Minnesota will change, and likely not for the better.
Before this year, Minnesota’s turnout led the nation in 13 of the last 17 elections, often closely followed by this year’s turnout leader, Maine. That pairing is not coincidental. Minnesota’s participatory governance tradition traces to Maine and New Hampshire in the 19th century — and in the 20th century, both Maine and Minnesota were early adopters of Election Day voter registration.
We wish we could claim that the mediocre showing at Minnesota’s polls was a one-time aberration caused by a dearth of hard-fought contests on the ballot. But that was not the case. With both the governorship and a U.S. Senate seat at stake, closer-than-usual congressional races in northern Minnesota, and special interest money pouring into state House races to an unprecedented extent, Minnesotans had much to decide at the polls.
Neither can it be said that turnout fell because of some ill-conceived procedural change that the Legislature or election administrators could quickly reverse. On the contrary: Minnesota’s newly enacted online registration option made early registration simpler than ever and a new “no excuses” option encouraged more absentee voting. It worked: As of Oct. 30, the state was seeing a 61 percent increase in accepted absentee ballots over 2010, the previous presidential midterm election, according to the secretary of state’s office.
Minnesota voters in 2012 did their part to keep turnout high, rejecting a proposed constitutional amendment that would have required voters to show a government-issued photo ID to receive a ballot.
If those weren’t the causes of the turnout drop, what were? We fear that the same forces that have eroded election participation elsewhere in previous years are belatedly taking hold in Minnesota. Negative campaign advertising has degraded respect not just for targeted candidates, but for the political process. Several generations have come of age hearing repeatedly that “government is the problem.”
And even in Minnesota, where the median household income has returned to prerecession levels, economic recovery has left a sizable share of the population behind. Those Minnesotans are susceptible to the kind of cynicism and hopelessness that inspires the false belief that elections are not effective tools for improving lives.
Fortunately, this year’s results also suggest that those vote-suppressing trends can be countered by intense turnout efforts. That’s what was evident in Minneapolis, where turnout fell only 1 percent compared with 2010, and St. Paul, where the decline was 4 percent. But the kind of door-to-door push campaigns mounted in the metro area are harder to execute in rural areas, where the falloff from 2010 vote totals was more pronounced.
Notably, that’s also where 10 of the 11 state House districts that changed from DFL to Republican representation are located. A turnout decline likely was not the only cause of those DFL defeats, but it was a contributing factor.
But it would be a shame if Minnesotans’ take on this year’s turnout dip is that it served one party well. That’s only true in the short term. In the long run, both parties — indeed, all Minnesotans — benefit when more citizens participate in the stewardship of this state. Both parties ought to regard their get-out-the-vote efforts as an investment in Minnesota’s future.