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Why boosting primary turnout in Minnesota would require big changes

MinnPost file photo by Karl Pearson-Cater
Curtis Gans, the director of the Center for the Study of the American Electorate at American University, concluded that through July, the nation was heading toward its lowest midterm primary turnout in history — around 14.8 percent of eligible voters.

Voter turnout for the just-completed 2014 primary election might not be low by Minnesota standards. But it will be low by national standards.

Phil Keisling was Oregon’s Secretary of State from 1991 to 1999, and he now directs the Center for Public Service at Portland State University’s Mark O. Hatfield School of Government. Keisling, who pioneered all-vote-by-mail elections and other election reforms, has research that shows that at 12.9 percent, Minnesota might end up tied with Indiana and Iowa — and ahead of only New Jersey — when it comes to turnout for the August 14 primary.

That’s based on registered voters. If the number of eligible voters is used instead — a number that’s estimated to be 3,876,752 in Minnesota — the turnout drops to 10.36 percent. 

While low, Minnesota is hardly alone is seeing primary election turnouts Keisling refers to as “micro turnouts.” Keisling found that the aggregate turnout in the 2011-12 election cycle, which included some presidential primary contests, was less than 20 percent. And “large” turnouts like those in his home state of Oregon still have two-thirds of registered voters deciding not to take part.

Curtis Gans, the director of the Center for the Study of the American Electorate at American University, concluded that through July, the nation was heading toward its lowest midterm primary turnout in history — around 14.8 percent of eligible voters. It also is likely to see the greatest number of states setting records for low turnout. 

Keisling said he has examined the common excuses for poor turnout, especially in primaries: general dislike of politics, single-party districts, lackluster choices or no choices at all. All have some validity. But Keisling thinks two reforms could make a difference.

One of them is using all-mail-ballot, not a surprise given Keisling’s support for vote-by-mail while serving as Oregon Secretary of State. “On the ‘lack of interest’ in primaries, the vote by mail system can help — and considerably,” Keisling said. “Our election here in May was as dull, perhaps duller, than the Minnesota election overall, and we still got about 35 percent.”

But the core reform Keisling now advocates is something more radical: doing away with the primary altogether: “Let every candidate run,” he said. “Give every voter the same ballot, listing all candidates, and then let the top two advance to the general, regardless of their party registration.”

“It actually wont cure the low turnout problem (at least over night),” he said. “But if the primary is perceived as being a good deal more important — and that there’s more robust competition, rather than a lot of incumbents filing with no opposition — over time I do believe you’ll see more interest and participation in these.”

Neither reform will be a magic cure, he said. “Long-established patterns of non-voting aren’t easy to disrupt, and there are other root causes, not the least of which is how increasingly distasteful and irrelevant politics seems to voters, especially those under 40,” he wrote in a May article in Governing Magazine. “However, both changes would at least provide more plausible paths for potential electoral success to candidates who are more interested in solutions and the actual business of governing rather than games of political ‘gotcha.’” 

Gans isn’t so sure. “It’s unlikely that top-two will have an impact on turnout. It may have an impact in the way it was intended — to produce more moderate nominees,” he said.

In a paper published last month about low voter turnout, Gans wrote: “Making it easier is not the motto the nation should have about political involvement. Democracy is a demanding religion and the approach to strengthening it should demand more not less of its citizenry.”

Gans thinks longer poll hours — like the 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. window voters have in New York — helps. He also likes convenient voting centers, where voters can cast ballots just as they would in their local precincts. And he supports state voter pamphlets that he thinks help voters “cut through the demagoguery of political advertising.” 

Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie said he isn’t worried about the level of turnout in the primary. The turnout from Tuesday is in the middle of the historic range for state primaries, between 10 percent to 15 percent, he said. And he opposes top two because he believes primaries should be party processes. 

“It never changes,” he said. “It never will.”

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Comments (17)

  1. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 08/18/2014 - 10:06 am.

    Voting is a complicated thing, and every system will have good things and bad things about it. One of the real problems in any attempt to reform any electoral system, is that it is very difficult to distinguish between objectively positive reforms, and reforms with subjectively support the reformers own political views. Ranked choice voting, for example, is supposed to discourage negative campaigning. But the notion that negative campaigning is to be discouraged is a subjective value judgment, nothing like an absolute or universally principle. In adopting policies like that, we are not making politically neutral choices, we are deciding to favor one method of campaigning over another, and often one set of candidates over another. We risk creating a false consensus which masks real and important political differences.

  2. Submitted by Todd Hintz on 08/18/2014 - 10:10 am.

    Voting by mail sounds like a good way to go to me as it makes it more convenient for people to vote.

    Advancing the top two candidates I’m not so sure about. Perhaps I’m reading the process wrong (the proposal is light on details), but what would happen if the top two candidates are from the same party? Or do the mean they would advance the top two candidates from each party? Either one sounds like it would have issues.

    As an election judge, I am not in favor of going to 6 AM – 9 PM voting hours. As it is I’m up at 5 AM to make it to the polls by 5:45, set up for opening at 7:00, run till 8:00 PM, tear down for roughly 75 minutes on a light day, and then run the election materials back to City Hall. On a typical primary day I’m on the go from 5 AM to 9:45 PM, a seventeen hour day–more if it’s a presidential election. Stretching that by an hour on either end kicks me up to a nineteen-plus hour day.


    It’s already tough enough to get judges as it is.

    I would be much more in favor of making voting day a national holiday. Give people the day off so they can go to the polls.

    • Submitted by Pat Berg on 08/18/2014 - 11:26 am.

      Long days for election judges

      Are election judges required to serve the entire day? Why? Should they be?

      Why not have partial-day shifts? Would breaking up the day help get more volunteers to be judges? (And would it help to mitigate the possibility of exhaustion-driven errors at the end of that long day?)

      • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 08/18/2014 - 01:33 pm.

        Judge’s Hours

        If you’re a judge you can indeed work half days, from either 6:00 – 2:00 or 2:00 to close. After doing the election business for twenty-two years, I would love to work half a day and then go home and crash.

        The hours are different for the chair and co-chair judges though for a couple of reasons. For those people they’re required to work opening to close.

        One reason is they want to have continuity throughout the day. Each judge has a different way of doing things, within the bounds of the law, of course. How they shuffle judges around, when they do so, how they interact with the other judges, and so on. When you get a good stable and smooth running team you want to keep it that way and not upset the apple cart. I’ve served with some head judges who can be, shall we say, a challenge to work with under good circumstances. For example, I encourage everyone to bring a dish to pass for pot luck lunch and dinner. An alternative chair may not want the hassle of coordinating that when she takes over part way through the day.

        Mort importantly, another reason is we simply can’t get that many judges, let alone judges who would like to be a chair or co-chair. In my city there are sixteen precincts, which means thirty-two chairs and co-chair judges. Going part time would mean a maximum of sixty-four head judges and it’s hard enough just getting the lesser number. Some people simply don’t want the responsibility and some don’t have the right mix of personality, organizational, and leadership skills necessary to do the job. Not everyone can nor wants to do the job.

        If I see someone in my crew who has the capabilities to move up the ranks and could do the job, I pass their name on to city hall so the city clerk can give them a call for the next election. Unfortunately those people are few and far between.

        If anyone would like to be a judge for the upcoming presidential election in a couple of years, I strongly encourage you to contact your city hall now and put your name on the list. With an open seat it’ll be a hotly contested season and people will be eager to vote–we’ll need all hands on deck to cover all the bases. Any and all help would be greatly appreciated.

        And you can work half days.

        • Submitted by Colleen Nardone on 08/20/2014 - 10:29 pm.

          Half day shift for election judges

          I believe full day or half day shifts depends on where you serve as an election judge. In the city where I live we serve the full day because there not enough people willing to act as judges for two shifts.

  3. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 08/18/2014 - 11:39 am.


    As a political activist, I am far more concerned with people who do vote, or who may vote than I am with people who don’t. Some folks, lots of folks in fact, have just made the choice to opt out of the system. Who am I to question their decision?

    • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 08/20/2014 - 03:01 pm.

      Not always a decision

      For those of us with the luxury of easy transportation and compliant employers, we can /decide/ to vote or not. For those who don’t have those luxuries, it’s not a decision.

  4. Submitted by Arvonne Fraser on 08/18/2014 - 12:23 pm.

    primaries and voting

    I agree with Mark Ritchie. Primaries should select the top candidate from a party. Good and effective politics require primaries as a check on parties by the voters. Though I will always encourage more people to vote and pay attention to politics, I do not believe that either ranked choice voting or the primary system that selects the top two candidates regardless of party contributes to good politics.

    Parties are essential to good politics and in parliamentary systems numerous parties work, but in our system of divided powers in government and divided governments–local, state and federal–two major parties are effective, binding this large nation together. Third parties are another check on the major parties, moving them to the right or left. They may at times make governing difficult, as we witness today, but they probably make the electorate think harder about what it wants and in what directions it wants government to move.

  5. Submitted by Annie Grandy on 08/18/2014 - 01:25 pm.

    Informed voters not necessarily more voters

    It would be nirvana if everyone voted. They don’t. They choose not to vote. And that may be okay. As pointed out in the article and the comments many people are not interested in or hate politics. (Strange seeing as it affects every aspect of every day of our lives but that’s their choice.)

    Jefferson is widely quoted as having pointed out that an informed electorate is necessary for our system to work. Too many people do not bother to become informed, including many people who do vote. Getting more of the uninformed to vote, IMO, should not be the objective. Motivating people to become informed should be. TV ads and one page literature aren’t really informative, they are, at best, introductory. On going reading is necessary to understand the issues and be able to question candidates as to their views and priorities.

    Taking an example from sports, the necessary reading and investigation might be fostered by games of Fantasy Politics to get people interested in the issues and getting to know the candidates. Once they find out just how much it affects their daily lives, they’ll vote. (Yeah, gambling just might make politics palatable.)

  6. Submitted by Brad Lundell on 08/18/2014 - 01:38 pm.

    Why did we move to August?

    I don’t have the numbers handy, but it seems that turnout has dropped since we moved the primary to ‘August from September. I can’t remember all the reasons for the move other than it gives the final candidates an extra month squaring off against each other and giving voters a better clue as to what each candidate stands for, but it seems that August is just a bad month for a primary in Minnesota.

    • Submitted by Ken Bearman on 08/18/2014 - 06:01 pm.

      August primary: For overseas and military voters

      There wasn’t enough time after September primaries to print and mail general election ballots to overseas and deployed military voters and get them back by the election. So we have low-turnout primaries in August, when people are winding down their summers — vacations and such — and when it’s often hot and uncomfortable for voters and election judges.

      Five states — Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina — send overseas voters an Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) absentee ballot for their primary election. If a voter’s #1 choice doesn’t make it out of the primary, the voter’s next viable choice is counted.

      Wha-? Five Southern states use IRV? Minnesota could do that.

      In fact, Minnesota could eliminate the primary election entirely — and save local governments a lot of money — by running the November election using IRV. Our voters could handle it. Our election judges could, too. We’ve done it in Minneapolis very successfully.

      • Submitted by Dan Hintz on 08/18/2014 - 08:17 pm.


        The Minneapolis IRV election was a joke, but it at least it got IRV advocates to stop claiming it produced majority winners. Now if only you guys would stop claiming it saves money.

  7. Submitted by Cheryl Salo on 08/18/2014 - 02:11 pm.

    Long days

    City of Minneapolis election judges may work half days with shifts from 6:00am – 2:00pm or 2:00pm through closing of the polls activities.

  8. Submitted by David Broden on 08/18/2014 - 03:47 pm.

    Incentives for Primary Participation

    All the talk about primary structure and dates is nonsense. People vote if there are real make a difference candidates in the mix. The primary system must be such that it will attract candidates who are standouts in the list of office seekers– I know many who said this year that the chocies made no difference so why bother. We need to change the incentive for who runs and make poltics a true place to serve not just a position for someone for a few years.
    Second idea is to include a voter opinion survey in the primary. The topics would be picked by a panel made up of party leaders, business, academia, and citizens. The list of topics would not be made public until election day. Topics that rank as priority would be topics that must be addressed by the candidates in the campaign and which the legislature must debate in the next session. Add to that the opportunity for voters to add a topic of interest.Linking both interesting candidates and a voter survey would likely bring a great outcome of increased participation in the primary.
    Dave Broden

  9. Submitted by Peder DeFor on 08/22/2014 - 07:28 am.

    Top Two Advance

    California has gone to the ‘top two advance’ election set up. All it has really done is create large areas of the state where one or the other party is shut out of the election after the primary. Smaller parties do even worse than the big two, of course. This is another solution in search of a problem.

    The biggest reason that this past primary vote total was so low is that the candidates are all fairly generic. We had generic Dems running against generic GOP’ers. If people voted for the party and then the party pulled the actual candidates names out a hat, the governance would be about the same.

  10. Submitted by Tom Mortenson on 08/24/2014 - 12:17 pm.

    Thank you Election Judges

    With all the excitement of the primary election now over and as we face the onslaught of political ads and maneuvering for the November election it’s time for a special note of thanks to all those who serve as Election Judges.

    Too often voters fail to notice the contribution to our representative government that Election Judges make to our system of government. Indeed, their participation in our election process is essential as our nation seeks to fulfill its promise of having a government “of, by and for the people”.

    Many voters do not know that election judges (poll workers) are paid only a small stipend for their work and staff local polling places in every community throughout the state working from early morning to late in the evening, carry out election procedures, and make sure that the rights of voters are protected.

    Their ranks include citizens from both major parties and more. During a general election, there are more than 30,000 election judges who staff more than 4,100 precincts in the State of Minnesota.

    Together their service has helped advance the cause of democracy by keeping election process fair and meaningful, a right that many of us sometimes take for granted (just look at the low voter turn-out), while others have given their lives to protect and serves as an envy of others throughout the world.

    Thank you, Election Judges for ensuring the secret ballot and privacy of voters remains part of the right to vote.

    I salute you for the long hours you devote to serving the public and want you to know that you are appreciated.

    The Colonel

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