City election turnout jumped significantly in Minneapolis and St. Paul this year, reversing decades of waning voter participation in municipal elections.
Minneapolis saw 42 percent voter turnout this year – a 9 percentage point jump from the last municipal election in 2013.
St. Paul saw a similar increase, but its 27 percent turnout rate still lags its western neighbor.
These increases have broken the free fall in Twin Cities voter turnout in municipal elections, which crashed about 20 points between 1993 and 2009.
“Research will consistently show that competitive races and controversial issues drive people to the polls,” said Casey Carl, Minneapolis city clerk. “And you really have to be motivated in an off-year city election to turn out.”
Voters were likely driven to the polls for a combination of reasons, Carl said, including write-in campaigns, competitive races for city seats, residual effects from the national political scene and an uptick in social media and other non-traditional means for campaigns to garner attention.
This is also the first municipal elections in Minneapolis and St. Paul with "no excuses" absentee voting, where voters could cast an absentee ballot before election day without providing a reason for needing to do so.
This year, about 11 percent of the ballots in Minneapolis came from absentee voters, up from 6 percent in 2013. Absentee votes accounted for 10 percent of St. Paul ballots, up from 4 percent in the last municipal election.
Lower turnout in municipal elections is common across American cities (only 22 percent turned out in New York City this year). Despite the considerable increases this year in Minneapolis and St. Paul, turnout remains about half what the two cities see in a presidential year and may seem low for a state that led the nation in voter turnout in 2012 and 2016.
Turnout increases in Minneapolis were more pronounced in some wards than others, according to a Star Tribune analysis of ward-level data provided by the city. (Ward-level data for St. Paul isn't available yet)
Northeast Minneapolis, the University of Minnesota and Cedar-Riverside wards saw the largest percentage point increases for the city compared to 2013. The latter two areas, represented by the Second and Sixth Wards, have had among the lowest average voter turnout for city elections reaching back to 1993.
The Fifth Ward, representing part of Minneapolis’ North Side, had the lowest turnout of 28 percent and the smallest increase of only 4 percentage points.
This is the first year in more than 20 years that St. Paul’s voter turnout has significantly increased from one mayoral election to another. That could be explained by the fact that the city hasn't had an open mayoral seat in 12 years.
In Minneapolis, this is the second election in a row with an increase. It's also the second straight election with a highly competitive mayoral race.
Voter registration numbers (not including election day registration) show steady increases in Minneapolis in recent years, while St. Paul has been relatively flat.
Ranked-choice voting was first used in Minneapolis in 2009 and in St. Paul in 2011. In 2009, voter turnout on both sides of the river was about 20 percent.
It’s hard to know how much of the turnout increases in the two cities since then stems from ranked-choice voting, especially when taking into consideration open seats, political climate and other factors.
But the clearest change introduced by ranked-choice voting is in more choices at the ballot box and less pressure on voters to choose a single candidate.
“This year you really saw ranked-choice voting in action,” Carl said, “Whereas in other years you saw normal elections that just happened to be using RCV.”