A record number of Minnesotans cast ballots this year, with nearly 2.6 million people participating in an election that cemented Democrats' hold on statewide offices.
At 64 percent turnout, it was the largest total number of people to vote in a midterm election in the state's history, and the highest percentage of voters participating in a midterm since 2002. Minnesota wasn't the only place to see unusual participation Tuesday, but the state's history of landing at or near the top of national rankings for voter engagement appeared likely to continue.
"Minnesota is well-positioned to be number one again," Secretary of State Steve Simon said, noting some other states may not have their final count for another week.
Nationwide, the average turnout rate appeared to be about 48 percent, the highest it has been for a midterm election since 1966, said Michael McDonald, an associate professor at the University of Florida who tracks turnout.
Simon sees two main explanations: "One is an abundance of intense contests, and two is … more widespread adoption of election reforms."
One of those intense contests, Democrat Dean Phillips' win over incumbent Republican Rep. Erik Paulsen, likely helped drive the particularly high turnout in Hennepin and Carver counties.
Suburban Dakota and Washington counties, where voters picked Democrat Angie Craig over incumbent Republican U.S. Rep. Jason Lewis, were also among the top 20 counties in the state where the largest percentage of registered voters turned out, based on secretary of state estimates. However, of the state's 87 counties, the five with the best registered voter turnout were rural communities along the state's northern and western borders. Hennepin County voters notched the sixth-highest turnout.
Hennepin County has been a leader in the use of absentee early voting, Simon said. Since 2014, all Minnesota voters have had the option to send in their ballot from home without needing an excuse. The initiative took a while to catch on, but has grown in popularity and could be partly responsible for the higher turnout this year, Simon said. There is also a correlation nationally between higher turnout and the use of early voting since 2000, McDonald said.
Both McDonald and Simon noted youth turnout appeared to be up over past years.
Of the Minnesotans who registered to vote from January to right before Election Day, roughly two-thirds were between 18 and 30 years old, which was 10 percentage points higher than 2016, Simon said.
O.T. Thompson, 19, was one of those first-time voters. He was part of a steady stream of people who showed up at Trinity Lone Oak Lutheran Church in Eagan to cast a ballot Tuesday. His older brother E.J. Thompson, 28, brought him to the polls after voting at a different location. They both picked straight DFL tickets.
"I don't want to be one of those people who complain further down the road," E.J. Thompson said.
He wants lawmakers to enact gun reform and prevent guns from getting into the wrong hands. Thompson, who lives in the district where Craig defeated Lewis, said that race was the most important to him.
While Democrats picked up at least 27 seats in the U.S. House, including Lewis', there was not just a "blue wave" at the polls, McDonald said. Even before Election Day, early voting data indicated that people on both sides of the aisle were engaged in the "hypercompetitive races," he said. However, McDonald suggested Democrats picked up so many House seats in part because they were more energized than Republicans about some races outside of battleground states that received less attention.
While many Democrats sat out the midterm in 2014, this year they showed up, McDonald said. One of the places they turned out was in what he called the "purple dot" in the heart of the U.S. that includes Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois and Iowa. McDonald said voters there gravitated toward President Donald Trump two years ago, but appear to have shifted back to Democrats.
"Midwesterners really are a part of the swing electorate in this country," he said, and cannot be dismissed in the 2020 election.
Star Tribune staff writer Nicole Norfleet contributed to this story. Jessie Van Berkel • 651-925-5044