Voter turnout dropped in Minnesota, yet it was strong enough that the state has likely regained its No. 1 spot.

About 74 percent of eligible voters in Minnesota cast a ballot in Tuesday's election, preliminary numbers show, bolstered by expanded early voting.

"That's European level," said Carleton College political science professor Steven Schier. "Most impressive ... particularly because the top of the ticket for both major parties featured people of record unpopularity."

Yet Minnesota's turnout was down from 76 percent in 2012 and 78 percent in President Obama's historic first election, and Schier characterized Tuesday's showing as a return to normal after Obama's mobilization surge.

The decline this year primarily reflected a lack of enthusiasm for the presidential candidates, and could have affected outcomes depending on where fewer voters turned out, said Kathryn Pearson, associate professor of political science at the University of Minnesota.

Matching 2012's turnout would have required an additional 78,181 Minnesota voters, according to the Secretary of State's office. In Hennepin and Ramsey counties, two of the state's most staunchly Democratic counties, voter turnout appears to have been either flat or slightly down.

Nationally, voter turnout appears to be down, too. Early numbers suggest about 55 percent of eligible voters cast a vote across the country, continuing the decline seen in recent presidential election cycles. However, provisional ballot counting and late results trickling in from a few states could drive that percentage a little higher.

In Minnesota, enough people cast ballots to put the state at the top of the pile, said Steve Simon, Minnesota's top election official.

With its higher-than-average education and incomes, Minnesota has traditionally led the country in voter turnout, although it did slip to sixth place nationally in the 2014 midterm election.

Simon credited the state's new "no excuses" absentee voting with driving strong turnout. Just over 20 percent of voters — about 673,000 — voted early, nearly three times more than in 2012 before the no-excuses option began.

"This is the first cycle that people were really attuned to its existence," Simon said.

Simon's get-out-the-vote campaign over the past year featured television ads in October with Twins, Vikings, Wolves and Wild players all urging Minnesotans to register and vote.

The state registered a record number of voters, Simon said, with close to 70,000 registering in a single day — Monday, Oct. 17.

Simon downplayed the drop in Minnesotans casting ballots as normal voting fluctuation.

"We're very civically engaged and I don't see any erosion in that," he said. "We're still at the top of the list."

The Star Tribune calculated turnout rates based on the number of ballots cast for U.S. president, reported as of Thursday morning, divided by eligible voter population estimates provided by the United States Election Project. 612-673-4683 612-673-1789