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Minneapolis council wants legislators to give it more options for adhering to ‘Kahn rule’

What the city’s latest decision could mean for council elections.

MinnPost photo by Jessica Lee
On Friday, the Minneapolis City Council approved a proposal that asks legislators to give the city more options in meeting the so-called Kahn rule.
It’s official: The Minneapolis City Council wants Minnesota lawmakers to change the state law governing the city’s council elections.

On Friday, the council approved a proposal that asks legislators to give the city more options in meeting the so-called Kahn rule, a 2010 state mandate that requires the city to hold council elections soon after census-driven redistricting.

Here’s what voters should know about the city’s request — and what it could mean for city elections in coming years.

Back up: What’s the ‘Kahn rule’ again? 

Named after its author, former DFL state Rep. Phyllis Kahn, the Kahn rule requires the city of Minneapolis to redraw ward boundaries and conduct council elections within two years after the federal government releases new census data. The release of 2020 Census data is expected to happen early next year.

The law aims to give voters fair representation in Minneapolis politics by allowing residents of neighborhoods with changing ward boundaries to elect council members as soon as possible instead of simply waiting for the next council election in a four-year cycle. 

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In practical terms, that means two-year terms for council members once every decade, rather than their usual four-year terms. It also means change to a key aspect of the city’s political system: a “unified ballot” with all 25 offices — mayor, city council, board of estimate and taxation and park and recreation board — up for election at the same time.

As written now, the Kahn rule would require Minneapolis voters to elect 13 council members for two-year terms in 2021, while simultaneously picking a mayor for a regular four-year term. Then, in 2023, council seats would be back on the ballot for a four-year term, while the mayor would be on the ballot in 2025 for a four-year term.

So what, exactly, did the council decide Friday?

At the request of the city’s Intergovernmental Affairs Committee, the full council finalized a proposal that asks legislators to amend the Kahn Rule so that the city could add an additional municipal election to its four-year cycle, pending its pace of ward redistricting, to sync up council elections with other offices.

Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey
MinnPost photo by Jessica Lee
Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey
Under the proposal for lawmakers, if the city were able to finalize new ward maps before a springtime deadline for filing for municipal offices in 2021, council candidates could maintain the current schedule of four-year terms and run to represent voters in the new wards.

Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey is on board with the request. On Wednesday, he said he supports council members work to keep council and mayoral races coupled in 2025. “I support the push,” he said.

But if the city was unable to complete redistricting by the spring of 2021, it could add a “midterm” election for council members in order to comply with the Kahn Rule. Under the proposal, council members would run for two consecutive two-year terms so that mayoral and council elections sync up at least once every decade.

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Not only would the law mean two two-year terms for council members, it would also mean higher election costs for the city. According to early estimates, adding an election that only had the council on the ballot would cost about $2.6 million, raising the city’s four-year total for elections to about $13 million. 

On Wednesday, council members on the Intergovernmental Affairs Committee said the proposal adheres to the state law’s intent — to strengthen voters’ voice in municipal politics — while preserving the city’s control over its elections schedule.

“This relies on the Legislature, you know, honoring our local jurisdiction over our own elections; our hard work to comply with the law that they set forth without any funding or assistance to comply,” said City Council President Lisa Bender, who for months has been advocating for ways to keep all municipal offices on one ballot. “[Not changing the law] would be the worst case for our voters and have real impacts on governances at the city.”

In addition to the request for lawmakers, the council on Friday approved a list of goals to guide future policies on redistricting and elections, including minimizing the cost of changing the city’s election cycle for taxpayers and limiting the amount of changes to city charter or state law to comply with the Kahn Rule. 

What’s the city’s plan for redrawing wards after the 2020 census?

In preparation for the population count in April, city staff is already starting to use existing data via the American Community Survey and the Minnesota State Demographer Center to predict where the new ward boundaries in Minneapolis will reflect population changes. 

City Council Member Andrew Johnson
MinnPost file photo by Terry Gydesen
City Council Member Andrew Johnson
“We live in a very data rich world right now and a lot of that [mapping] work can be front-loaded,” said Council Member Andrew Johnson, who’s chair of the city’s Intergovernmental Affairs Committee.

Once the federal government releases 2020 census data next year, the 15-member Charter Commission will have the final say in how — and when — the city establishes new political boundaries for the council. In other words, the commission has the authority to establish the pace of redistricting, essentially determining if council members run for two-year terms or if the council can maintain its current four-year cycle of elections.

While some council members have pushed for urgency so they can avoid having to run for two-year terms, the charter commission has decided it’s going to take its time drawing the new maps after this year’s count. To provide ample time for public feedback on proposals, commissioners want the process to span 2021 and finish by March 2022 — after next year’s council election. 

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That means council members are grappling with their likely fate, should they seek re-election in 2021. “I suspect that having a [council-only] election in 2023 is a pretty likely scenario,” Bender said. “I’m not sure how voters’ experience will be with that cycle.”

The city last held council elections for two-year terms in the mid-80s. After that, the city rotated council members on four-year cycles.

Why is this happening now when the Kahn Rule is almost 10 years old?

Issues with Minneapolis’ redistricting system surfaced more than two decades ago, when voters elected council members in fall 1997 and they assumed office in January 1998. Less than three years into the new terms, wards had changed — in some cases significantly — because of redistricting after the 2000 census count. That meant a portion of voters in the new wards waited until 2005 to elect council members who represented them.

So at the request of Rep. Kahn, Minnesota lawmakers changed state law to require all first-class cities — Minneapolis, St. Paul, Rochester and Duluth ⁠— to hold council elections soon after census-driven redistricting. 

St. Paul first tested the Kahn Rule in 2011. Joe Mansky, the recently retired manager of Ramsey County elections who helped write the law, said he used its provisions to create and finalize new wards for St. Paul after the 2010 census, prior to the city’s 2011 council election. That timeline for redistricting sidestepped any possible changes to the city’s schedule of elections. Meanwhile, city councils in Duluth and Rochester avoid the law’s requirements because they include at-large positions that represent the entire city population and hold staggered elections with other council seats, unlike the ward-only systems in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

The most recent census count in 2010 did not test the provisions in Minneapolis because the city had already planned to hold council elections in 2013. 

Will the 2020 election impact any of this?

Yes. In two ways: First, Minneapolis officials are preparing to write a ballot question for the 2020 election that would resolve a logistical conflict between language in the city’s charter and the Kahn Rule as it stands now. The charter commission is scheduled to host a public hearing on the idea next Wednesday.

Second, much of the charter commission’s work on redistricting hinges on whether the Minnesota Legislature can redistrict the state on its own instead of throwing the map-making to the courts. Under Minnesota law, the city must complete redistricting within 60 days after lawmakers draw state and congressional political lines, but it’s been more than four decades since the state has been able to come up with a redistricting plan without judicial involvement. 

That means the city’s charter commission has to be prepared for either scenario: a legislative consensus on redistricting or a longer process in the courts. The former largely depends on whether the DFL gains majorities in both the state House and Senate in the 2020 election and is able to finish redistricting in early 2021. 

So only terms for council seats are likely to change?

Yes. With a committee vote Wednesday, council members rejected a separate proposal to comply with the Kahn Rule that would have radically changed the schedule for electing all city offices — whether running for mayor, council, the park board or the city’s Board of Estimate and Taxation (BET).

City Council President Lisa Bender
That proposal called for all Minneapolis candidates to run for one two-year term and two consecutive four-year terms every 10 years, matching the cycle of elections for Minnesota state senators and maintaining the unified ballot. But the 2-4-4 term idea lacked support from bodies outside the council, including the mayor’s office.

“Minneapolis should prioritize stability, cost and fair representation in making a decision [for how to proceed under the Kahn rule],” Frey said in an interview this week.  “Adding unnecessary elections for the mayor and park board, BET, doesn’t support those goals.”

Bender, on the other hand, said she is somewhat displeased by that type of response from offices unaffected by the Kahn Rule. She said the 2-4-4 term cycle could add clarity and consistency for the city’s municipal elections. “The City Council is going to have change no matter what,” she said. “It was a little disappointing not to see more open-mindedness from those other bodies in collaborating on a schedule.”

Another route that council members have discussed but decided not to pursue: a lawsuit against the state to challenge the validity of the Kahn Rule and its impact on Minneapolis. At this point, Bender said, instead of suing, the city is focusing on lobbying the state to make the proposed changes. “We’re at the stage where we really need to start getting to work,” she said.

What’s the likelihood that the state approves the city’s request?

In an interview last month, DFL state Rep. Ray Dehn said the likelihood of changing the law significantly is slim. A former Minneapolis mayoral candidate, he said city officials have run a “soft lobby” for his office to try and amend the rule on Minneapolis elections, and they spoke with senators last year. 

But lawmakers could view the final legislative request from the city as logistical and within the goals of the Kahn Rule. Bender said she also hopes lawmakers continue discussing ways to ensure voters’ representation in local elections though not just in specific cities but statewide.

“If the real goal is to make sure that every Minnesotan is represented in their local government, [my hope is] that that law would apply to all of our communities,” Bender said. “I think these conversations will continue beyond just this first-time pass at trying to comply with the law.”