Nelsie Yang became the first Hmong woman elected to the St. Paul City Council on Friday, winning a seat that hadn’t been open for more than two decades.
The 24-year-old community organizer won a majority of votes in the ranked-choice contest after four rounds — and nearly eight hours — of election judges hand-counting paper ballots. Former Planning Commissioner Terri Thao came in second in the Sixth Ward race.
“I’m feeling incredible,” Yang said after her victory was announced, her 3-year-old niece by her side. “So many people walked into fire with me and so I just feel so grateful for that.”
In the other undecided race from Tuesday, Council Member Dai Thao won a third term shortly before 5 p.m. Anika Bowie, a Minneapolis NAACP leader who put up a spirited challenge for the First Ward seat, conceded the race in a Facebook post before ballot counting had concluded.
“I am deeply saddened to announce we lost the race by nearly 300 votes,” she wrote. “Thank you from the bottom of my heart to those who demonstrated their support for me loudly and proudly. I look forward to seeing the next generation carry the baton of electoral justice further.”
The final margin in the race was 390 votes separating Dai Thao and Bowie.
In an interview, Dai Thao said he was “very humbled and honored to serve the people of Ward One.”
“They are the most important people to me, and every day they work hard to keep theirs heads above water and every day I’m going to work hard for them,” he said.
The 2020 council will be a historically diverse one. Five of seven council members will be women and three will be people of color.
All seven council seats were up for election this year, and five of six incumbents won their races on Election Day. Dai Thao and Yang both failed to meet the 50% threshold needed to win the ranked-choice contests, though both led their races late Tuesday with more than 40% of first-choice votes.
Ramsey County election judges started counting votes shortly after 8:30 a.m. Friday in two rooms — one for each ward — at a county government building on the city’s West Side.
Campaign representatives were allowed to watch ballots being counted and sorted, but could not challenge vote counts. The opportunity for challenges will come after Wednesday, when the City Council certifies the election results.
“This is not a recount,” Interim Elections Manager David Triplett told the group of about two dozen candidates, campaign workers and organizers who gathered to watch the ballot count. “This is just a continuation of Election Day.”
St. Paul first implemented ranked-choice voting in 2011, allowing voters to cast their ballots for multiple candidates in order of preference. Thao’s first council win, in a 2013 special election, also required a count of down-ballot votes.
Vote counts on Friday differed slightly from Tuesday’s results, because judges were able to count votes that ballot machines couldn’t read.
Twice as many people cast ballots Tuesday as did in 2015, a trend that local officials attributed in part to a broad field of candidates. Twenty-eight people filed to run for the seven council seats, compared to 18 four years ago.
In addition to council and school board races, the 2019 ballot included a referendum on St. Paul’s year-old organized trash collection system — a divisive question that brought out single-issue voters and prompted some first-time candidates to run. More than 60% of voters cast their ballots in favor of keeping the existing system.
Most council races were also won by a wide margin. Council members Rebecca Noecker, Chris Tolbert, Mitra Jalali Nelson and Jane Prince all won about 60% of first-choice votes, and Council President Amy Brendmoen won about 53% of first-choice votes.