During the 2020 election, when a highly contentious presidential races was on the ballot, Minneapolis’ Ward 6 — which includes the Cedar-Riverside, Seward, Philips West, Elliot Park, Stevens Square, and Ventura Village neighborhoods — had the second-lowest turnout of the city’s 13 wards.
It was a different story in southwest Minneapolis, where Ward 13 recorded the highest turnout in the city that year — as it has in every election held in Minneapolis since 2008.
None of that was unexpected. While a number of factors correspond to higher voter turnout, two of the primary ones are income and education attainment. Ward 6 is home to a significant population of immigrants, which often have lower household incomes, while Ward 13 includes some of the most affluent neighborhoods in Minneapolis.
What is less expected is how much that pattern changes — at least when it comes to the relative ranking of wards — in years when only city offices are on the ballot. While Ward 13 had the highest turnout during the 2017 municipal contest, for example, Ward 6 also had comparatively high turnout, claiming the fourth highest among the city’s 13 wards, with Ward 9 — which also has a significant immigrant population — also seeing a substantial jump in rankings.
Smaller declines in some wards
To be sure, overall voter turnout is significantly higher in all Minneapolis’ wards during presidential election years compared to city election years. In 2020, for example, Ward 13 saw 91 percent of registered voters turnout to cast a ballot, while 50 percent turned out in the 2017 city election.
That was true throughout the city. In Ward 4, the city’s northernmost ward, 74 percent of voters turned out for the 2020 election, while 31 percent came out during the 2017 city election, second lowest among all city wards.
The big difference is that in some parts of the city, turnout doesn’t decline as much during municipal elections. Though Ward 4, 5 and 6 have similar turnout statistics for presidential elections, Ward 6 saw much higher turnout than those other two wards during the last two city elections. In 2017, for instance, the ward saw 47 percent of registered voters cast a ballot, only a few percentage points behind consistent turnout king Ward 13.
What’s behind the city election numbers in Ward 6?
If the pattern holds, the upcoming 2021 city elections should see Ward 6 rank among those with the highest turnout numbers.
If it does, one reason will be Somali-American community, which has a significant presence in Ward 6 and is a primary driver of turnout there. Hassan Omar, who works with a nonprofit focused on Somali women, said that Somali immigrants have long gravitated toward local politics because it offers a chance to affect policies that can directly help them.
That’s a tradition that follows from Somalia, said Omar. “Somalia itself has been created through tribalism,” he said. “They have their own representative on a village level. We tend to entrust local politics, that is the nature of Somalia.”
There’s also the matter of being represented by candidates who understand voters’ experiences. “We do see in Minneapolis, and in other places, that, if there are candidates that a voter or voters feel better represented by, there is higher turnout,” said Nick Harper, civic engagement director for the League of Women Voters Minnesota.
Though a candidate that “looks like them” surely energizes Somali voters, said State Rep. Mohamud Noor, whose district includes much of Ward 6, it’s also true that many in the community live in high-rises and rental properties, which means they are also easier for a candidate to engage, at least relative to communities that are spread out in single-family homes.
But Noor also pointed to another, simpler reason why voter participation doesn’t tend to decline in many of the ward’s neighborhoods. As immigrant communities, the population is keen on becoming citizens and having voting rights — and on actively using them.