Voter turnout doubled in St. Paul’s city elections Tuesday from four years ago, a change that local officials attribute to a controversial referendum question, voter outreach by a large field of candidates and enthusiasm heading into next year’s presidential race.
All seven council seats, school board races and a referendum on organized trash collection were on the ballot. More than 56,000 people voted, compared with fewer than 28,000 in 2015, according to interim Ramsey County Elections Manager David Triplett.
“In our experience, when there’s a ballot question or a bond issue, or in St. Paul where you had competitive races — we had a lot of candidates running for election — those are just really traditional drivers of turnout,” he said. “We had all the factors in Ramsey County.”
Turnout was up across the county, Triplett said, though final numbers won’t be available until next week.
Five council members won re-election, while two races in the ranked-choice election were still undecided Wednesday. First Ward Council Member Dai Thao failed to reach the 50% threshold needed to win; so did Nelsie Yang, a first-time candidate who led the race for the open Sixth Ward seat late Tuesday ahead of former planning commissioner Terri Thao.
Second-choice votes will be calculated Friday, according to Ramsey County Elections.
“All the ballots have been cast, so we’ll just wait and see,” Dai Thao said Wednesday. “But we’re confident we’ll be OK.”
Anika Bowie, a Minneapolis NAACP leader who came in second place in the First Ward race with about 30% of first-choice votes, did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.
St. Paul Council President Amy Brendmoen, who won a third term Tuesday, attributed the uptick in turnout in part to ranked-choice voting and the number of candidates who ran for council seats — 28 total, compared with 18 in 2015 — as well as greater efforts to reach voters, particularly young people.
“Specifically for our campaign, we expanded our likely voter database just because we knew that the trash issue was going to be on people’s minds,” Brendmoen said. “We did deeper and more consistent outreach to people who don’t consistently vote in municipal elections.”
The referendum on the city’s year-old organized trash system drew attention — and candidates — to the off-year election. Data from the Secretary of State show hundreds more voters cast ballots on the trash question than in council races.
More than 60% of voters opted to uphold the existing trash system. Yes votes outnumbered no votes in all wards but the Seventh, on the city’s East Side.
“St. Paul voters have delivered a strong statement about the direction our city is heading,” Mayor Melvin Carter said in a statement on Tuesday near midnight. “Message received.”
Beyond local ballot measures, Brendmoen and St. Paul DFL Chairman Garrison McMurtrey attributed Tuesday’s turnout to a general increase in voter engagement heading into the 2020 presidential race.
“In today’s political climate, it’s hard — especially if you’re a Democrat — to not feel determined and energized to show our values and to make sure that those values are prevalent, not only in the way we live our everyday lives but in regards to who we elect to office,” McMurtrey said. “With everything that’s happening on the national level, we know that these local races matter.”