Tracking turnout: Older voters overwhelm mayoral elections in St. Paul and other cities

MinnPost photo by Rita Kovtun
In St. Paul in 2013, the median age of the voting age population was 40.8 years old. But the median age of those who voted was 57 years old.

Question: Who votes for mayor?

Answer: Old people, but not even very many of those.

A new study titled “Who Votes for Mayor?” by Portland (Oregon) State University’s Population Research Center analyzed mayoral elections in several U.S. cities, including St. Paul, and came to a truly depressing but not so very surprising conclusion:

In all the cities combined, the turnout percentage of registered voters age 65 and older was 10 times higher for those age 18-34.

Ten times. Oy. We’re talking about the rate, not the number of voters, so it doesn’t matter whether there are more younger or older voters registered. It’s just whether they took the trouble to vote. The older voters were 10 times more likely to take the trouble.

But wait, it gets worse. Since the older voters were also twice as likely as the younger ones to even be registered to vote, the participation rate of eligible voters over 60 was 20 times higher than for the 18-34 year olds.

Twenty times. That’s a big number. And a bad number.

In St. Paul in 2013, the median age of the voting age population was 40.8 years old. But the median age of those who voted was 57 years old.

The four cities studied were Charlotte, Detroit, Portland and St. Paul. The gap between the median age of the eligible voters vs. actual votes in St. Paul was the highest of any of the cities studied.

In 2013 in St. Paul, people 65 or older made up just 11.9 percent of all eligible voters but produced 32.4 percent of all votes in that year’s election. People 18-34 years old made up 41.1 percent of the voting eligible population, but cast just 11.8 percent of the votes.

As you might surmise, voting behavior also varies greatly by economic status. Jason Jurjevich, one of the scholars who worked on the study, pointed me to a study of neighborhoods that the group calls “voting deserts,” census tracts in which the level of voter participation was less than 50 percent of the citywide average. In St. Paul at the time of the 2013 election, there were 20 such tracts in which 23.4 percent of the city’s voting-age population lived. That percentage was considerably higher than the other three cities in the survey.

Some excuses

Some excuses can be made for St. Paul. For example, the mayoral election in 2013 was barely contested, with incumbent Mayor Chris Coleman cruising to reelection with 78 percent of the vote. (But all the elective municipal offices were on the ballot as well.) The 2013 election was the first time St. Paul used ranked-choice voting. Portland, which had a much, much higher turnout, was the only one of the four cities studied to hold its city election 2012, so it coincided with the big presidential election.

Another point in favor of St. Paul compared to the other three cities studied: That statistic above that said older registered voters were 10 times more likely to vote than younger registered voters was a blended number for all four cities studied. St. Paul’s ratio was just 7.7 times. Still troubling, but the best of the four cities studied.

But all of these potential excuses and silver linings are off the main point.

Low by world standards

Voter turnout in U.S. elections is a bit of ongoing scandal (although it isn’t often treated as such). Our country is supposed to be the leader and promoter of world democracies, but the rate of voter participation is extremely low by world standards.

A year ago, when I wrote a series about the poor performance of U.S. democracy, I quoted a textbook that studied the percentage of voters who turned out in 31 democracies all over the world. The U.S. turnout of 57 percent ranked 29th on that list, and that is doing our system the great kindness of scoring only the quadrennial presidential election, which is the peak of U.S. voter turnout.

This study is at the other end of the spectrum. Municipal elections, especially those held in odd-numbered years like St. Paul’s, attract far fewer voters. And it’s been the case for many decades that older voters are more reliable participants than younger voters. But still, mayor and City Council elections do have consequences.

And, if you assume that elected officials are likely to pay closer attention to the needs and wants of voters than non-voters, the Portland State scholars concluded:  “Our results clearly indicate that in these cities, residents between 18‐34 years of age are close to invisible on the electoral landscape.”

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Comments (19)

  1. Submitted by William Lindeke on 07/29/2015 - 08:59 am.

    yeah you glossed over an important point

    We did not have a meaningful Mayoral election in Saint Paul. Not even close. There was no reason to go to the polls. (Frankly, I’m often embarrassed by the lack of even symbolic political contest over here.)

    Watch what happens next time (’17), or I’d have loved to see some digging about how large this disparity is for contested Council races, for example.

    Still your point is sound. I read recently about U of MN landlords who are registering their student-tenants right when then sign the up for apartments. (http://www.mndaily.com/news/metro-state/2015/07/14/landlords-may-provide-voter-registration) That kind of attitude would be a big help, though keeping Minnesota’s ‘vouching’ system in place is also a big help for many younger people who move frequently and whose address rarely matches their official ID.

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 07/29/2015 - 09:23 am.

    My suspicion

    …as a certified old person who’s missed just a single election since becoming eligible to vote in the 1960s, is that the people who show up to vote are more likely to get what they want from government. It’s still not a certainty, of course, with the top 10% dominating media messaging and actual legislatures in many cases, but, it seems to me analogous to playing the lottery. You can’t win if you don’t play, and if you don’t vote, it’s pretty unlikely that government at *any* level is going to pay attention to your concerns.

    Thoreau thought voting was pointless, but I don’t agree. Any claims made by this society and its members to being “democratic” are largely nullified by terrible voter turnouts. If people under 65 think their issues are being given short shrift by the political class, that terrible voter turnout is at least a large part of the reason. It’s also a reason why groups at either end of the political spectrum can wield an inordinate amount of clout in elections sometimes. A small, dedicated group of zealots might not make much difference in an election where 75% of the eligible voters actually cast a ballot, but when voter turnout is as dismal as the study describes, it’s not only possible, but fairly likely, that those same zealots will have an influence on an election that’s way out of proportion to their actual numbers or percentage of the potential voting population. The “Tea Party” seems a fairly obvious example, but there are plenty of others, from environmentalists to those who oppose them.

  3. Submitted by Tom Christensen on 07/29/2015 - 09:46 am.

    Trump is a good thing for politics

    Trump is the Ross Perot of 2015. Perot got in and made the politicians stop most of the political claptrap they usually spoke and talk more about what matters to voters. Voters are really ticked at Washington’s non-performance and that is why “The Donald” is having the success he is. Voters are liking Trump’s unvarnished, unscripted comments. Essentially Trump is playing the part the press is supposed to be doing, but won’t. The presses questions should be keeping the politician off their scripted, boring, talking points. The press should also not give up until the politician answers the questioned that was asked. A non sequitur answer does not do anyone any good. The new definition of “news” is “entertainment” and that is what most all the so called news outlets have turned to. I would love to see Martha Raddatz be one of the debate moderators. She did a terrific job in the last debate cycle making the politicians answer the question that was asked. She won’t make it this time though because she is “too tough”. She didn’t ask the questions they wanted to answer. She would increase voter turnout because she is so tough. I think her style of questioning would get more voters off the couch and into the voting booth. This time, softball questions from FOX moderators as well as every politician trying to standout will cause nothing but chaos. Most will just look foolish and who wants to vote for foolish. Why get off the couch and vote? Vote for what? The GOP circus continues.

  4. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 07/29/2015 - 09:52 am.

    All Municipal Offices?

    “All municipal offices” were not on the ballot in 2013. In Saint Paul, the mayor and city council are elected to 4 year terms in opposite odd numbered years. This may be nice for city council members who wish to run for mayor without giving up their current office, but by not electing both the council and the mayor in the same year, it further drives down turnout.

    I’d just as soon elect the city council, county board, legislature, governor, US senators, and president all on the same day. Get it over with and out of the way.

  5. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 07/29/2015 - 10:42 am.

    Voting

    As someone very involved with campaigns, my general view is that if you want people to vote, you must give them a reason to vote. For many elections and candidates, winning is based on turning out your voters while not turning your opponent’s voters. I think a lot of candidates are happy with depressed voter turnout if they feel the voters that do show up will vote for them. Negative campaigns have this effect. They depress everyone, but some segments of the population will vote anyway, and if they are your voters, the negative campaigner doesn’t mind if his tactics make everyone sad.

  6. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 07/29/2015 - 12:21 pm.

    Low by world standards

    One factor is that we don’t make it easy for working people to vote.
    Elections are held during working days, and while employers are supposed to give people time off to vote, they don’t have to make it easy.
    Like much of the civilized world, we could show our value on voting by making election day a national holiday.

    That way, you wouldn’t have to be a senior citizen (to return to the original topic) to vote.

    • Submitted by Tom Christensen on 07/29/2015 - 01:09 pm.

      The Republicans could make it easier

      The Republicans do everything in their power to make voting as inaccessible and uncomfortable as possible. Every voting cycle I hear of something the Republican states do to impede voters that makes my stomach turn. It is just another sign the Republicans have totally lost their moral core. Congress needs to make the Republican voting day shenanigans illegal.

    • Submitted by Ken Bearman on 07/30/2015 - 06:35 pm.

      Voting IS easy in Minnesota (& other states) and safe

      “One factor is that we don’t make it easy for working people to vote.”

      Not true. Minnesota has no-excuse absentee voting. A voter “can apply online or submit an absentee ballot application by mail, email, fax, or in person.” (Minneapolis Elections web site at http://vote.minneapolismn.gov/voters/absentee .) The voter can mark their ballot at home and mail it in.

      And at least 26 other states and D.C. have no-excuse absentee voting. ( http://www.ncsl.org/research/elections-and-campaigns/absentee-and-early-voting.aspx#early )

      Minnesota also has early in-person voting at places like the Minneapolis City Hall at times not during working days. Plus Minnesota has same-day registration at the polling place for everyone with the required documentation (or ID plus a voucher).

      Three states (OR, WA, CO) have 100% mail voting for all elections, yet Minnesota’s voter turnout consistently is at the top of all states.

      So what’s not easy for the vast majority of eligible people to vote? Very little.

      P.S. to the serial complainers: Ineligible people voting in Minnesota isn’t from them lying about their identity. There’s never been a conviction for voter impersonation.

      • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 07/31/2015 - 09:33 am.

        True

        We’ve made some progress.
        But not everyone has access to the internet,
        nor easy access to a State office.
        And those who don’t are disproportionately poor.

        • Submitted by Ken Bearman on 07/31/2015 - 02:06 pm.

          Also true, but

          the Internet is available in libraries all over the state, absentee ballots are available by mail and phone, and (to repeat) there’s same-day registration at the polling place. The point is that Minnesota has made voting very accessible.

          What more can the State do?

          • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 07/31/2015 - 02:34 pm.

            A start would be

            maintaining a list of all eligible voters and mailing ballots to them.
            Eliminate the whole registration process.

  7. Submitted by Mike Worcester on 07/29/2015 - 01:46 pm.

    Why Odd Years?

    I’ve heard over the years that the reason St. Paul (and Minneapolis) run their municipal elections in odd years is to avoid the crush of other elections being held on those general elections dates in even years. Yet most municipalities in the state, granted not nearly as big as the two largest, run theirs in conjunction with the even year elections.

    I’d be curious to hear a defense of the odd year elections that can at the same time justify the added expense of holding a separate election this way.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 07/30/2015 - 10:21 am.

      Odd Years

      I’m just speculating, but perhaps it was done so that national and state elections would not overshadow the local elections.

  8. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 07/31/2015 - 07:14 am.

    Republicans do want to make it more difficult to vote, just as Democrats want to make it easier to vote. And the reason is the same in both cases, to increase the proportion favorable to the party in any given electorate.

    • Submitted by Ken Bearman on 07/31/2015 - 02:09 pm.

      The world isn’t binary

      It’s not just Democrats who want to make voting easier. Many of us want it to be as easy as possible for eligible people to vote, irrespective of the candidates’ party/ies.

  9. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 08/01/2015 - 07:15 am.

    Eligibility bar

    Where you set the eligibility bar isn’t the issue. Surprisingly to me, I have in fact seen some Republicans talk favorably about returning the right to vote to felons. And while have seen some of the more mindless talk show hosts babble about voters tests and what not, that has never really been the political issue that’s been joined.

    I am a Democrat and other people are Republicans. What we know, and what they know or at least what is universally accepted as conventional wisdom among us is that Democrats benefit from high voter turnout. That’s why we are opposed to anything that places any sort of barrier between a potential voter and the voting booth. These barriers can take all sort of different forms.But what we assume is that all such barriers discourage Democratic voters who for various reasons already find it more difficult to vote than Republican voters. The barriers don’t have to be very high. They might not be noticeable to most of us. Their impact on voters as a whole can be very small. But in close elections, they can be enough to tip the balance.

  10. Submitted by Andrew Rockway on 08/03/2015 - 12:44 pm.

    It’s helpful to remove barriers to registration and voting (e.g. automatic registration, easier access to absentee ballots), but the available research only shows a small jump in turnout from these measures.

    Fundamentally, many young citizens don’t see the value in voting or its connection to their lives. Most young voters lack a basic understanding of how the issues they care about manifest in local government. The press does an abysmal job differentiating candidates, especially in the policies and vision candidates will pursue upon being elected. And most young people ignore their local press entirely.

    Perhaps even more troubling, elected officials often see themselves as a professional class of problem-solvers, rather than representatives of the people. Government-led community engagement efforts are basically non-existent. If democracy means voting for people that rarely ask you what you think, it’s unsurprising that most people sit it out.

  11. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 08/04/2015 - 01:40 pm.

    Young people

    I don’t really know why young people don’t vote. I am not always sure why people do vote. I remember talking with one voter who told me she only voted in presidential years. Smarty pants that I am, I felt the urge to explain to her that the votes of Minnesotans don’t count for president because the state is safely Democratic, that if she wants a say in who our next president is, she should move to Ohio where presidential elections are decided and votes matter. But I resisted the temptation.

    The fact is, the case for not voting in practical terms, can be a substantial one. Some votes count more than others; lots of votes don’t count at all. And as with all complex problems, there is no simple solution. People need reasons to vote, and they need to be persuaded that their vote matters, a task made more difficult because much of the time it does not.

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