One week before election day, Minnesota DFL Party Chairman Ken Martin was rallying a group of about 25 student Democrats on the University of St. Thomas campus when he asked a question: Who wants to run for office one day?
The response was not what he expected. “Not one hand was raised,” Martin said.
One week later, on election day, the results were mixed for Martin’s party: While the DFL held on to all statewide offices, including governor and a U.S. Senate seat, Republicans took control of the Minnesota House. A big factor in Democrats’ loss in the House was a severe drop in turnout in rural Minnesota, where Republicans made most of their gains.
It’s one of the reasons the scene at St. Thomas has stayed with Martin, even a month later: Many of those who didn’t show up to cast a ballot, Martin said, were disenchanted young voters and other Democrats who can be counted on to show up at the polls in presidential election years — but stay home during the midterms. For the 2014 election, in fact, the turnout in Minnesota was barely above 50 percent, the worst level of participation in decades.
It wasn’t for lack of trying. More money was poured into turning out DFL voters than ever before, Martin said, including funding for statewide offices, canvassers, volunteers, mail, radio and television ads. The DFL Party even hired youth organizers a year and a half before the election to get an early start on turnout. “You did everything you could, you threw the kitchen sink at it and more and they still didn’t show up,” Martin said.
If the DFL can’t figure out a way to excite voters and boost their turnout in midterm elections in Minnesota, Martin sees a pattern developing: control of the state House of Representatives will flip back and forth every two years. It’s already happened the last three election cycles, and Martin expects Democrats will win back the majority in 2016 with a boost in turnout thanks to the presidential race.
“Then in 2018, you lose it back,” he said. “Until we figure out how we can break this curse of our base not showing up in midterm elections, we are going to have a boom and bust cycle.”
It’s also something that could be unique to the state House. State senators are only up every four years, and they won’t face voters in a midterm election again until 2022, after the state draws new political maps. And the DFL’s statewide candidates have fared well in recent years, often by boosting turnout in the politically bluer metro area.
Martin said they will look at the efficacy of some of the programs they put in place this year and evaluate their messaging strategy, but they will also try to expand on new programs they already know worked.
That includes their early vote program, which tried to get Democrats to cast their ballots before election day via the state’s new, no-excuse early absentee voting law. In all, nearly 200,000 early absentee ballots were cast and accepted in Minnesota this election cycle, and Martin’s analysis shows about 65 percent of those ballots came from Democrats. Of those DFL absentee voters, 73 percent were sporadic voters who show up in presidential years but sometimes stay home during midterm elections. “That program really worked for us, even though it was just a fraction of the total statewide vote,” he said.
But Martin’s biggest concerns still focus on young voters. Only 13 percent of 18- to 29-year-old voters turned out nationwide this cycle.
“I’m really worried about Democracy, not just my party,” Martin said. “I think the toxicity, the gridlock, the constant politicking and blaming and nothing getting done leads young people to think there’s no merit in being involved, and now you have this record low turnout among young people. And you just think, jeez, is this the future?”