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No, police reform won’t be on Minneapolis voters’ ballots in 2020. But two other questions will be.

One is procedural, but the other will determine just how often the city’s voters will be heading to the polls over the next decade. 

Minneapolis City Council
MinnPost photo by Annabelle Marcovici
Answers to one Minneapolis ballot question will determine whether Minneapolis City Council elections will be decoupled from mayor elections after 2021.
The Minneapolis Charter Commission’s decision earlier this month to continue reviewing an amendment proposal that would have started the process of dismantling the city’s police department means there won’t be anything about policing on city residents’ ballots come November. 

But that doesn’t mean there won’t be any ballot questions. 

There will actually be two questions asked of Minneapolis voters on Nov. 3. One is a procedural question that simply updates language in the city charter to mirror state law about special elections. The other is more substantial: It will determine whether council elections will be decoupled from mayor elections after 2021, when a state law requiring Minneapolis to hold City Council and Park and Recreation Board elections soon after city ward redistricting will force council members to run for two-year terms.

Or as the actual ballot language puts it: 

Shall the Minneapolis City Charter be amended to allow ward and park district boundaries to be reestablished in a year ending in 1 and to allow the use of those new boundaries for elections in that same year; to allow ward and park district boundaries to be modified after the Legislature has been redistricted to establish City precinct boundaries; to provide that an election for a Council Member office required by Minnesota law in a year ending in 2 or 3 after a redistricting shall be for a single 2-year term; and to clarify that a regular election means a regular general election?

Here, then, is a look at what that actually means — and why Minneapolis residents have to vote on it. 

So wait, why is this happening?

Because of what’s known as the Kahn rule. 

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Every 10 years, after the federal government releases census data, cities have to redraw council ward boundaries within the next two years. In Minneapolis, each of the City Council’s 13 ward boundaries are redrawn so that each has roughly the same population.

Former Rep. Phyllis Kahn
Former Rep. Phyllis Kahn
Named after former longtime DFL state Rep. Phyllis Kahn, the 2010 law requires Minneapolis to hold elections essentially as soon as possible after those boundaries are redrawn — even if it interrupts a four-year term or messes up the city’s elections scheduling. The aim was to limit the time council members could represent wards that could change considerably after redistricting, something that actually happened after the 2000 census.

What that means is that Minneapolis City Council members won’t only be on the ballot in 2021 as part of the city’s regularly scheduled municipal election, it means they will also have to go before voters in 2023, after the city’s new ward boundaries are in place. 

OK, so why is this on the ballot now?

Because if nothing else were to change in the above scenario, council elections would be decoupled from mayoral elections, which — because the mayor is elected citywide — aren’t affected by the Kahn rule. 

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Minneapolis officials don’t love that, for a couple of reasons. It would mean the end to the city’s “unified ballot,” which has the entire City Council and the mayor — as well as the Board of Estimate and Taxation and the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board — facing election at the same time. The city also wants to save the added cost of carrying out multiple elections over the next several years.

City Council President Lisa Bender
City officials are also worried about turnout in a council-only election. People already don’t vote in city elections as much as in general elections. Council President Lisa Bender said Minneapolis is likely to  have “typically lower turnout” in the 2021 elections when the City Council, mayor, Park Bard and the taxation board will all be on the ballot. A council-only election could have a “dramatic drop in voter participation.”

There’s also the concern that so many contests over such a short time period could cause voter burnout. Having elections “back to back to back could potentially wear people down,” said Minneapolis City Clerk Casey Carl. 

City officials first tried, and failed, to get the state to give Minneapolis more options for complying with the Kahn rule. The city then made a plan to rush census-driven redistricting before the 2021 City Council election, so the Kahn rule wouldn’t interrupt Minneapolis’ council terms. But delays to the census caused by the pandemic made that impossible. 

All of which means the Kahn rule-mandated election for City Council members is happening in 2023, and there is nothing the city can do about it. The proposed charter amendment, then, isn’t about undoing the Kahn rule, but rather about trying to realign City Council elections to get them back in sync with mayoral elections.

What will it mean if it passes?

If approved, the charter amendment would mean the council election in 2023 will also be for a second 2-year term — following the one decided in the 2021 election. In 2025, however, when the mayoral election is back on the ballot, council elections would revert to a four-year term, thereby synching back up the city’s election schedule. 

In other words, if the amendment passes, Minneapolis Council seats would be on the ballot in 2021, 2023, 2025, 2029, 2033, 2037 and 2041, with the last of those also being for a two-year term.

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And if it doesn’t pass?

If Minneapolis residents vote down the amendment, council candidates will still face elections in both 2021 and 2023. But a no vote would mean the 2023 election would be for a four-term term, not a second two-year one, and would put the council on a different election schedule than the mayor. 

In that scenario, council seats would be on the ballot in 2021, 2023, 2027 and 2031, at which time the election would once again have to be for a two-year term to abide by the Kahn rule. It also means that, due to decoupling the council and mayor elections, city voters would be going to the polls in 2021, 2023, 2025, 2027, 2029, 2031 and 2033. 

The question is really long, though. What about all the other stuff in there?

The ballot question, which is actually titled “Redistricting of Wards and Park Districts,” asks voters if City Council ward and Park Board district boundaries can be redrawn the year after a census, and that those re-established jurisdictions can be used to hold an election in that same year. 

If the measure is approved, that part of the question would allow council ward redistricting to be done quickly after a census and avoid two-year council terms, an idea that was considered earlier this year before the coronavirus pandemic made it impossible. 

The ballot question also asks if the city can make adjustments to new council and park district boundaries after the state Legislature redraws its boundaries. 

And finally, the single ballot question also asks voters to clarify that a “regular election” means a “regular general election.” This simply means that any election mandated by the Kahn rule is a general election, and not a special election. This change in language, said Carl, ensures the city charter is in compliance with the Kahn rule.  

But it’s an all or nothing question, so voters get all of that with a “yes” vote — and none of it with a “no” vote. 

Wait, you said there were actually going to be two questions on the ballot. What’s the other one?

The other ballot question titled on the ballot as “Special Municipal Elections,” reads as follows:

Shall the Minneapolis City Charter be amended to comply with Minnesota election law related to uniform dates for special municipal elections and to provide that a special election be held on a legal election day under Minnesota law that is more than 90 days from a vacancy in the office of Mayor or Council Member?

Put more simply, the question asks voters if the charter should be amended to mirror state law, which requires all cities to hold special elections for council and mayoral vacancies on already state-approved election days. Those days are the second Tuesday in February, April and May, as well as the day of the primary election in August and the day of the general election in November. 

The charter currently calls for a special election to be held within 90 days of a council or mayoral vacancy. If passed, the measure would simply align city charter language with state law language.