Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon is not afraid to exploit Minnesota’s superiority complex.
For nine election cycles in a row, Minnesota voters turned out to the polls more than any other state in the nation. In fact, the state actually holds the all-time record for turnout, when 78 percent of registered voters showed up to cast a ballot in the 2004 election.
“If you heard about an athlete who won nine MVP awards in a row, or an actor or actress who won nine Oscars in a row, you would say, ‘Wow, that is a mind-blowing winning streak,’” said Simon, whose office is in charge of overseeing elections in Minnesota.
But in the 2014 midterm election, the state fell from number one in the U.S. for overall turnout to number six. Now, Simon is traveling the state, issuing a singular challenge to Minnesotans: Bring the state back to number one in voter turnout.
Simon’s doing everything he can think of to get the word out. He’s teamed up with the state’s professional sports teams to make ads encouraging people to vote; he’s started a competition between college campuses to see which student government groups can register the most people to vote; and he’s targeting nearly-voting-age students, setting up the first-ever statewide mock election with nearly 300 participating high schools.
But even if Minnesotans go to the polls in record numbers in November, it still won’t explain a fundamental question: Why, exactly, do they show up in such large numbers in the first place — and what happened in 2014?
Easy access to the ballot
When it comes to high voter turnout, Simon is quick to cite the state’s long history of clean elections and its emphasis on making it easy for people to access the ballot. After all, he helped write some of those laws during his decade in the Minnesota House before running for secretary of state in 2014.
But one of the biggest changes, he argues, occurred all the way back in 1974, when Minnesota became the second state to allow same-day voter registration (after Maine). Today, 13 states plus the District of Columbia have passed laws allowing for same-day registration. In those states, voters can register to vote at their polling place on Election Day instead of submitting their information ahead of time. In the 2012 election, about 18 percent of Minnesota voters — or 527,867 people — registered at their polling location.
Proponents argue that same-day registration increases voter turnout by eliminating arbitrary deadlines that cut off registration when voters are most interested — usually a week or two before the election. According to a study from Demos, a public policy group that supports same-day registration, such laws increase turnout from 3 percent to 6 percent. And Pew Charitable Trusts found that in states with same-day registration one in eight voters used it in the 2012 election.
“In some states, if you don’t register by mid-October, that’s it. You’re out. You missed the cutoff to vote,” Simon said. “In Minnesota you can roll out of bed that day, go right to the polling place and register. We sort of take that for granted.”
In Ohio and Texas, for example, voters must be registered to vote by mail or in person by Oct. 11. Those states also don’t have online voter registration, a 2014 change Minnesotans seem to like: Nearly 47,000 people registered to vote online over the last week alone, Simon said, shattering previous registration records.
There are other new voting laws that Simon is watching this fall to see how they impact voter turnout. They include early voting, which allows Minnesotans to cast their ballots in person at participating polling places a week before the election. Simon also helped pass a new no-excuse absentee voting law. Previously, Minnesotans had to have a valid excuse if they wanted to mail in their ballot early, but now all Minnesotans can vote more than 40 days before the election via an absentee ballot. Research shows early voting increases turnout by 2 percent to 4 percent, particularly boosting voting among minorities.
Demographics and civic culture
But have voting laws driven Minnesota’s turnout — or did they just increase the numbers in an already high-turnout state? Many argue the baseline of the state’s high voter activity comes from something deeper and harder to explain: the notion that a sense of civic responsibility is as Minnesotan as hotdish or refusing to take the last half of the last snickerdoodle.
It’s a squishy idea that’s hard to back up with hard data or research, but that hasn’t stopped some political scientists from trying. Daniel Elazar was the first to spout theories of Minnesota’s voting superiority in 1966, when he published his now-famous opinion that the United States can be broken into three broad cultures: individual political culture, traditional political culture and moralistic political culture. East Coast states dominate individual political culture, where government serves a very practical and utilitarian purpose. In the South, where traditional political culture is dominant, government’s role is largely custodial. But Minnesota is the “archetypical” example of moralistic political culture, Elazar wrote, where politics “is considered one of the great activities of humanity in it’s search for the good society.”
|AKAlaska’s political culture is individualistic dominant.||MEMaine’s political culture is moralistic dominant.|
|VTVermont’s political culture is moralistic dominant.||NHNew Hampshire’s political culture is moralistic dominant, with a strong individualistic strain.|
|WAWashington’s political culture is moralistic dominant, with a strong individualistic strain.||IDIdaho’s political culture is moralistic dominant, with a strong individualistic strain.||MTMontana’s political culture is moralistic dominant, with a strong individualistic strain.||NDNorth Dakota’s political culture is moralistic dominant.||MNMinnesota’s political culture is moralistic dominant.||WIWisconsin’s political culture is moralistic dominant.||MIMichigan’s political culture is moralistic dominant.||NYNew York’s political culture is individualistic dominant, with a strong moralistic strain.||MAMassachusetts’ political culture is individualistic dominant, with a strong moralistic strain.||RIRhode Island’s political culture is individualistic dominant, with a strong moralistic strain.|
|OROregon’s political culture is moralistic dominant.||NVNevada’s political culture is individualistic dominant.||WYWyoming’s political culture is individualistic dominant, with a strong moralistic strain.||SDSouth Dakota’s political culture is moralistic dominant, with a strong individualistic strain.||IAIowa’s political culture is moralistic dominant, with a strong individualistic strain.||ILIllinois’ political culture is individualistic dominant, with a strong moralistic strain.||INIndiana’s political culture is individualistic dominant.||OHOhio’s political culture is individualistic dominant, with a strong moralistic strain.||PAPennsylvania’s political culture is individualistic dominant.||NJNew Jersey’s political culture is individualistic dominant.||CTConnecticut’s political culture is individualistic dominant, with a strong moralistic strain.|
|CACalifornia’s political culture is moralistic dominant, with a strong individualistic strain.||UTUtah’s political culture is moralistic dominant.||COColorado’s political culture is moralistic dominant.||NENebraska’s political culture is individualistic dominant, with a strong moralistic strain.||MOMissouri’s political culture is individualistic dominant, with a strong traditionalistic strain.||KYKentucky’s political culture is traditionalistic dominant, with a strong individualistic strain.||WVWest Virginia’s political culture is traditionalistic dominant, with a strong individualistic strain.||VAVirginia’s political culture is traditionalistic.||MDMaryland’s political culture is individualistic dominant, with a strong traditionalistic strain.||DEDelaware’s political culture is individualistic dominant, with a strong traditionalistic strain.|
|AZArizona’s political culture is traditionalistic, with a strong moralistic strain.||NMNew Mexico’s political culture is traditionalistic dominant, with a strong individualistic strain.||KSKansas’ political culture is moralistic dominant, with a strong individualistic strain.||ARArkansas’ political culture is traditionalistic dominant, with a strong individualistic strain.||TNTennessee’s political culture is traditionalistic.||NCNorth Carolina’s political culture is traditionalistic, with a strong moralistic strain.||SCSouth Carolina’s political culture is traditionalistic.|
|OKOklahoma’s political culture is traditionalistic dominant, with a strong individualistic strain.||LALouisiana’s political culture is traditionalistic dominant, with a strong individualistic strain.||MSMississippi’s political culture is traditionalistic.||ALAlabama’s political culture is traditionalistic dominant, with a strong individualistic strain.||GAGeorgia’s political culture is traditionalistic dominant, with a strong individualistic strain.|
|TXTexas’ political culture is traditionalistic dominant, with a strong individualistic strain.||FLFlorida’s political culture is traditionalistic dominant, with a strong individualistic strain.|
|HIHawaii’s political culture is individualistic dominant, with a strong traditionalistic strain.|
- Moralistic, with individualistic strain
- Individualistic, with moralistic or traditionalistic strain
- Traditionalistic, with moralistic or individualistic strain
In moralistic political cultures in the Upper Midwest, Upper New England and some western states, individualism is tempered by the desire to have government intervene when it’s in the best interest of everyone, and states with moralistic culture tend to have higher voter turnout. Moralistic cultures are also not afraid to let their government participate in issues of — well — morality. That’s why some think Minnesota is one of the last remaining holdouts on Sunday liquor sales and has one of the strictest medical marijuana programs in the nation.
These cultures were developed during the great western migration, Elazar wrote, when like-minded people migrated with other like-minded people. Minnesota was settled by church-going Scandinavians and Germans who encouraged more of their friends and family to stay in the state. Minnesota also emerged as a society just before the Civil War, thrusting it immediately into the moral debate over slavery. “A highly moralistic issue-oriented politics became vitally important,” Elazar wrote.
“There’s something that drives deeper that gives us a base of high turnout, and then you add everything else to that afterward,” DFL Party Chairman Ken Martin said.
Part of it is also demographic and socioeconomic, with a voting population that is usually older, higher income and highly educated. A third of Minnesota adults over age 25 have a bachelor's degree or higher, according to the Census, 11th among U.S. states and the District of Columbia.
When it comes to other measures of civic engagement, Minnesota does pretty well, too. Minnesota Compass found that Minnesotans helped or were helped by their neighbors and volunteered at higher rates than most of the U.S.
“We have a high level of engagement in almost every way,” said David Sturrock, a political science professor at Southwest Minnesota State University and former treasurer for the Republican Party of Minnesota. “Precinct caucuses is a good example of it, but we also have a lot of people who have a church or a union membership, and we rank highly in involvement in organizations. We were one of the first states in the country for the Legislature to have an information services. It’s participation and duty, and we take it seriously.”
Strong third party movements
Minnesota also has a long history of third-party movements, which gives voters more choices on the ballot than the traditional two-party system, and some argue third parties have turned out voters over the years who would’ve otherwise stayed home.
From 1918 until 1944, the populist Farmer Labor Party was the most successful statewide third-party movements in the nation’s history, at one point holding a majority in the Legislature. Minnesota also had Farmer Labor governors, U.S. senators and members of Congress until the party was merged with the Democrats in 1944. Minnesota didn’t even start using partisan designations until the 1970s.
In 1998, Minnesota’s Reform Party (which would later become the Independence Party) had a notable victory when Ventura beat Republican Norm Coleman and Democrat Skip Humphrey. Ventura was credited with his ability to mobilize voters — particularly young men — who usually didn’t vote. A Star Tribune exit poll at the time found that 10 percent of voters wouldn’t have bothered to come out had Ventura not been on the ballot.
While Ventura was the highest-profile third party candidate in recent history, he’s not the only one to earn a noteworthy number of votes in Minnesota. In 2002, Tim Penny ran for governor under the Independence Party’s banner, winning 16 percent of the vote. In 2008, Independence Party candidate Dean Barkley earned 15 percent of votes in the U.S. Senate race, and Independence Party candidate Tom Horner earned 12 percent of the vote in the 2010 race for governor.
“I think in general, there is about a third of the electorate that doesn’t like Democrats or Republicans, and if there’s a viable alternative it gives them a reason to show up,” said Dean Barkley, founder of Minnesota’s Reform Party and a one-time U.S. senator. “When Ventura was on the ballot we broke records for turnout because there was someone who represented those voters.”
Competitive and interesting elections
Some outsiders get the impression that Minnesota isn’t a politically competitive state. After all, Minnesotans have gone Democratic in every presidential election since 1972.
But if you look a little closer, other races are less certain. Minnesota’s congressional delegation is split between Republicans and Democrats, and at least three seats are considered competitive this fall. Control of the Legislature flipped from Democratic control to Republican control in 2010 and back again to Democratic control in 2012. For the last two years, the House and Senate has been split between the two parties. The governor’s office often switch hands between parties, too, with Ventura, an independent, handing the baton off to Republican Tim Pawlenty who handed it off to Democrat Mark Dayton.
Political scientist André Blais called the relationship between competitive races and voter turnout “crystal clear.” He reviewed 32 studies that used different settings and methodologies and in 27 of them found more competitive races meant higher voter turnout. The idea is that people feel their vote matters less in states where Republicans or Democrats are almost always assured a victory.
“Parties and campaigns also tend to throw more money at competitive races, which likely leads to even higher turnout,” said Michael McDonald, associate professor of political science at the University of Florida, who compiles the turnout statistics on the United States Elections Project.
Belief that government works
What’s more, Minnesotans just seem to like their government more than others do. According to the Census, Minnesota has more than 3,600 units of government — from township governments all the way up to the governor’s administration — meaning there are about 68 government entities per every 100,000 people. That’s higher than many states in the nation.
“There’s a perception that government is less corrupt and still works in Minnesota, which some believes leads to higher voter turnout,” Jeff Blodgett, a political consultant and former campaign manager for U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone. “People have, relative to other states, a little more confidence in public institutions and government. They are not as cynical.”
That notion is backed up in a 50-state Gallup Poll in 2014, where Minnesota ranked number seven among states with the most confidence in government, with 69 percent saying they believed government still worked and 31 percent saying it didn’t.
Cynicism about government on the rise
But if government in Minnesota is so great, what happened in 2014? There are nearly 4 million eligible voters in the state, but only about half of them showed up to the polls two years ago. Participation was particularly low among 18- to 24-year-olds, and Minnesota has always done poorly in getting minority communities out to vote.
Turnout wasn’t just down in Minnesota; the entire nation experienced voter depression in 2014, signaling a bigger problem. The most popular theory: Cynicism toward government and politics in America is deepening, and even super civic Minnesotans aren’t immune.
“Something is happening here that is not insulating us from those national trends. That’s disturbing to me,” said Martin, the DFL Party chairman. “That’s the danger of Minnesotans just relying on what has happened in the past. We can’t rest on our laurels and think Minnesotans are just great people and engaged and will always turnout.”
That’s where having strong voting laws is nice, but it won’t get more people out to the polls, Simon said. “You can pass a law, but that doesn’t get at the person who is disillusioned, disappointed or disgusted with the political system.”
Younger voters tend to show up in much higher numbers during presidential elections, but Simon hopes their work targeting young voters will help too. He’s also trying to expand outreach to minority communities. In his office, Simon keep copies of 1896 and 1920s-era Minnesota voting instructions printed in multiple languages, including Swedish, Finish, French, Polish and German. This year, Simon’s office expanded the languages for ballot instructions from five to 11.
There’s no statewide race on the ballot to drive turnout this year, but all 201 seats and control of the Legislature is up for grabs, as well as a few competitive Congressional seats. But Democrat Bernie Sanders and Republican Marco Rubio won Minnesota’s precinct caucuses in March, and some worry lack of excitement over the Donald Trump-Hillary Clinton presidential line-up could keep people away from the polls.
Simon hopes pure intensity over the presidential race will drive turnout. “If they feel passion, whether that’s like or dislike for a candidate, that’s going to drive people,” he said.
“We might fall short, and we might not, but it’s worth doing. [We are] taking of advantage of state pride and that Minnesota superiority complex. I joke that we are every bit as proud as Texas and New York, we just aren’t as loud about it.”