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Minneapolis will likely see increased voter turnout in November

MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig
A number of factors point to heavy turnout for Minneapolis' 2013 election. Shown here are lines during its 2012 election.

Predicting voter turnout is always difficult, including for political scientists. The same will be true this November in the Minneapolis elections. But for those who contend that confusion resulting from ranked-choice voting (RCV) or 35 candidates running for mayor will depress voter turnout, they had better think again. Instead, examination of the factors affecting voter turnout and evidence from races and jurisdictions where there are competitive multicandidate races suggests Minneapolis could have a larger than expected turnout this fall.

schultz portrait
David Schultz

As I point out in my forthcoming book, “Election Law and Democratic Theory,” many variables influence voter turnout. Party affiliation and intensity of partisan attachment are two factors. Being a member of a political party and the intensity of that party loyalty affect turnout. But other demographic factors such as class, race, and religion too are important. Religious affiliation – especially regular religious attendance – correlates positively with voter turnout. Age also is a factor, with middle-age voters more likely to vote than those under the age of 30. Turnout in the United States is also greater in presidential than non-presidential election years. There is also good data suggesting that better-educated and  informed voters are more likely to vote and that campaigns that are better covered by the media have higher rates of turnout.

Two more factors

But there are two other factors that are significant drivers of voter turnout: the appearance of a close or competitive election and candidate choice. There is powerful evidence that voters are more likely to vote when there is a reality or perception that their vote matters. All things being equal, voters like competitive horse races and will show up when they think their vote will make a difference. Related to that, when there are competitive elections, candidates and parties generally do a better job identifying and mobilizing voters to turn out, acting on the same belief that every vote matters. Second, in situations where individuals feel there is a real choice they are more likely to vote. Voters who do not find candidates whom they wish to vote for, or who see races where they are not excited about their choices, are less likely to vote.

Anecdotal and hard evidence support the notion that competitive elections and candidate choice are powerful forces affecting turnout. There is evidence that the Electoral College depresses turnout in noncompetitive presidential states. Generally competitive close elections have higher turnout than lopsided victories. Around the world multicandidate (more than two viable choices) races yield higher voter turnouts than non-competitive or two-person races. In 2010, some of us predicted that the shift to an August primary would decrease turnout, as was the case in the other states that did the same. The close DFL gubernatorial race demonstrated how candidate choice and competition increase turnout. Finally, for those who have worked on real campaigns (including me), they know that candidates and parties hustle more for voters when it is perceived to be a close election. 

Looking at Minneapolis elections

Now apply all this to the coming Minneapolis elections. All indications are that the mayor’s race is very competitive and that there is no clear favorite. There are perhaps four or more individuals who have a real chance to win, each appealing to different constituencies. This means already candidates are working hard to mobilize their voters and that Minneapolis residents have several choices for mayor. These factors alone should positively affect turnout.

But now throw RCV in and the calculations change. Some might argue that RCV and the appearance of too many choices will confuse voters and depress turnout. Only elitists lacking faith in the people should make such an argument. Instead, RCV, as it was designed to do, enhances voter choice and creates real possibilities that candidates who were the second or third choice of voters might win. This creates, as is happening in Minneapolis, candidates who are working harder to persuade voters to consider them a second choice and it is encouraging voters to think, in a race that seems even more competitive than usual, that their vote will matter. Bottom line: There is a reason to vote.

Four years ago Minneapolis used RCV for the first time and turnout was abysmal. Critics labeled RCV as the reason. I was asked by the City of Minneapolis back then to evaluate the implementation of RCV. My report indicated that the main reason for low voter turnout was a perception that the mayor’s race was not competitive. The 2009 was not a good test of RCV. Moreover, there was no or little evidence that RCV depressed turnout among the poor or people of color. Yes, some areas of the city did have signs of voter confusion, but again no evidence that RCV depressed turnout. Evidence of use of RCV in the United States and around the world substantiates that conclusion.

Overall, given the low voter turnout and perceived lack of competitive elections in 2009, it is almost too easy to predict that in 2013 turnout will increase across the board. Many factors will drive this, including the hard competition of many fine candidates in a close election where RCV could determine the outcome of the mayor’s race. 

David Schultz is a professor of political science at Hamline University and the 2013 Leslie A. Whittington national award winner for excellence in public affairs teaching.


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Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 09/25/2013 - 11:43 am.

    Given the mayoral candidates’ desire to be everyone’s second choice, they seem to be hedging their bets on issues so much that the debates (few so far, artificially limited to those with a certain threshold of campaign money and maybe an appointed Board position to their name) fail to point to much difference among those six or seven. No real fight, where every ballot counts. No interest.

    And, then, of course, how is it again that the counting goes?

    It’s not elitists looking down on the voting public who predict lower turnout. It’s realists who know what makes the average person want to vote and actually get out and do it.

    But, we’ll see if the piece of the puzzle this prof doesn’t mention–real contests at the Minneapolis ward level–brings out the voters this year.

  2. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 09/25/2013 - 03:10 pm.


    The problems with RCV have been well illustrated by this election. Because of the excessive number of candidates, neither the candidates themselves or their issues have been defined. The system is so complex that the votes themselves have lost meaning. So has the concept of “majority” since while a majority is required for election, nobody has any idea what the majority is exactly of.

    No clearer demonstration of the real world disastrous effects of RCV is needed. It has proven itself to be a Poli Sci professor’s dream, and a voter’s nightmare. It needs to be abandoned as soon as possible.

  3. Submitted by Walt Cygan on 09/25/2013 - 03:57 pm.

    I guess we’ll see

    The author wrote: “Only elitists lacking faith in the people should make such an argument.” concerning whether a large number of candidates will confuse candidates.

    This is a poor and insulting argument. I personally don’t think a large number of candidates will necessarily confuse voters. I suggest it will make voters question whether it is worth their time to wade through choices they don’t peceive as markedly different. The mushy tone of the debates and the desire to be voters’ second or third choice makes it even harder to differentiate candidates. Nothing “elitist” here.

    I guess we’ll see how turnout is affected, but don’t compare turnout with the last mayoral election. The comparison must be to the last few truly competitve races.

  4. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 09/26/2013 - 05:41 am.

    The elites

    “Only elitists lacking faith in the people should make such an argument.” concerning whether a large number of candidates will confuse candidates.”

    That is an amazing thing to say. I like to think of myself as among the elite. I hold advanced degrees from prestigious schools. I subscribe to “The New Yorker”. And I can tell you, I have no clear idea what my vote means in an RCV system. And it is certainly the case that RCV in no way reflects my voter intent. The Minneapolis mayoral election is a slow motion disaster, and it provides all the proof we need to reject RCV in the future.

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