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Against all odds: Minneapolis Charter Commission to revisit idea of moving city elections to even years

The main rationale for the idea: turnout in odd-year elections has long been much lower than in even-year ones. 

People casting their ballots at Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Park in Minneapolis on November 2.
People casting their ballots at Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Park in Minneapolis on November 2.
REUTERS/Nicole Neri

The Minneapolis Charter Commission is once again looking at how the city could move municipal elections to even years. 

Last week, one day after the 2021 city elections were held, Charter Commission Chair Barry Clegg proposed to have a review committee study moving Minneapolis to even-year elections for city races. The committee will study the legal and technical issues involved and decide whether or not to create a work group to come up with recommendations. Even if the Charter Commission approves such a move, however, it would require a city-wide vote, since it would involve altering the city charter. 

The main rationale for the idea is a familiar one: Turnout in Minneapolis for odd-year city elections is much lower than during even-year elections, when a governor’s race or a presidential election is on the ballot. 

In Minneapolis odd-year elections between 2001 and 2017, according to Clegg, the city’s average turnout was 31 percent of registered voters. During even-year, non-presidential elections over that same period, the voter turnout average was 59 percent. Even-year presidential elections during those years saw a turnout average of 75 percent. Turnout for the city’s contentious 2021 election was about 54 percent, the highest it’s been since at least the 1970s. 

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“It’s hard to argue against increasing voter turnout by 20 percent,” said Clegg. 

Clegg was behind a previous push, in 2017, to move the city to even-year elections, but that effort stalled due to a technicality surrounding Minneapolis’ use of ranked-choice voting for city offices. At the time, there was concern that it would be too difficult to accommodate both ranked-choice voting and non-ranked-choice voting on the same ballot. 

But in 2020, after Abdi Warsame left the City Council to become executive director of the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority, the city had to hold a special election to replace him as the Ward 6 council member. As a result, voters in the ward were given ballots that included votes for president — a non-ranked choice vote — and for Ward 6 City Council representative, a ranked-choice vote. The incompatibility concerns didn’t surface, said Clegg, clearing the way for the city to use mixed ballots in the future. 

Functional obstacles aren’t the only thing the Charter Commission will have to consider, however. One concern, which is noted in a report by Dylan Adams for the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs that was presented to the Charter Commission, is that other high-profile campaigns held during even years, such as a governor’s race or presidential contest, would overshadow local races, and that voters may be too fatigued to care much about the down-ballot campaigns. 

There are also political factors. “Changing elections will result in changing terms of current politicians,” noted Adams, meaning elected officials would either lose a year from their term or gain one.

The switch would also likely lead to changes in campaign and fundraising strategies for local candidates. “There will likely be changes in the amount of money given to local campaigns,” said Adams.

The Charter Commission Amendment Review Committee has yet to set a meeting to start the process, but Clegg said the Charter Commission has plenty of time, since the deadline to put charter amendment votes on the 2022 ballot is next summer.