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

A new study finds the turnout percentage of registered voters age 65 and older was 10 times higher for those age 18-34.

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.
MinnPost photo by Rita Kovtun

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.

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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.

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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.”