Minneapolis hits record for turnout in a municipal election, with 54% of voters casting ballots

Published on November 18, 2021

Original Publication


Minneapolis hits record for turnout in a municipal election, with 54% of voters casting ballots

More Minneapolis voters cast bal­lots in Tues­day’s e­lec­tion than any oth­er mu­nic­i­pal e­lec­tion in re­cent his­to­ry.

The e­lec­tion drew a 54% turn­out of el­i­gi­ble voters — the most for a city-only e­lec­tion in more than four de­cades, smash­ing the 1997 re­cord of 46.5%.

“Every vot­er felt like their vote count­ed, and in­deed it did,” said Jeanne Mas­sey, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of FairVote Minnesota, a ranked-voting ad­vo­ca­cy group. “It’s a pret­ty phe­nom­e­nal turn­out.”

It was Minneapolis’ fourth city­wide e­lec­tion with ranked-choice voting, which start­ed in 2009. It’s also the third con­sec­u­tive mu­nic­i­pal e­lec­tion where turn­out in­creased.

In every race, the can­di­date who won the most first-choice votes also won — ex­cept in one case. Voters elect­ed six dis­trict com­mis­sion­ers on the nine-mem­ber Park and Rec­re­a­tion Board, and in District 6, Risa Hustad had more first-choice votes than Cath­y Abene, but Abene ul­ti­mate­ly won.

Can­di­date Barb Schlaefer was el­imi­nat­ed from the race be­cause she had the few­est first-choice votes and her sup­port­ers’ se­cond-choice votes large­ly went to Abene and can­di­date Bob Fine. Hustad was el­imi­nat­ed in the third round. Hustad’s sup­port­ers’ choi­ces were re­dis­trib­ut­ed and gave Abene the win.

It’s only the third time in Minneapolis that some­one lead­ing with the most first-choice bal­lots didn’t win.

“We saw it play out I think just the way ranked-choice voting is sup­posed to play out,” Mas­sey said. “Voters ex­press­ed their pre­fer­ences. Not every win­ner is a win­ner out­right. That’s why we do runoffs is to make sure that the ma­jor­i­ty voice pre­vails in that proc­ess.”

She lik­ened it to pri­ma­ries, where one can­di­date gets more votes than the se­cond-place fin­ish­er and they both go on to the gen­er­al e­lec­tion, where the can­di­date with fewer votes in the pri­mary could still win.

In ranked-choice voting, voters rank can­di­dates and if a can­di­date doesn’t re­ceive more than 50% of the vote in a sin­gle-seat e­lec­tion, the proc­ess moves to a se­cond round. Then, the can­di­date with the few­est first-choice votes is el­imi­nat­ed along with can­di­dates with no math­emati­cal pos­si­bil­i­ty of win­ning.

Of­fi­cials can e­lim­i­nate can­di­dates in batch­es in­stead of one at a time if there’s no math­emati­cal chance of them win­ning. For those el­imi­nat­ed, their sup­port­ers’ se­cond-choice votes are re­dis­trib­ut­ed to re­main­ing can­di­dates, and the proc­ess con­tinues un­til a can­di­date gets a ma­jor­i­ty of votes. If only two can­di­dates are left, the one a­head is elect­ed, even if they didn’t hit the 50% thresh­old due to the num­ber of “ex­haust­ed” bal­lots, such as voters who didn’t rank se­cond and third choi­ces or their first, se­cond and third choi­ces didn’t make the cut.

In 2017, Fourth Ward City Council in­cum­bent Barb Johnson had more first-choice votes than Phil­lipe Cun­ning­ham while Gin­ger Jentzen was a­head of Steve Fletch­er in the Third Ward race. In both cases, the se­cond or third choi­ces af­ter can­di­dates were el­imi­nat­ed pro­pelled Cun­ning­ham and Fletch­er to vic­to­ry.

“It proves the con­cept to some de­gree that peo­ple can be elect­ed on the strength of se­cond- and third-choice votes,” said Aaron Gross­man, the city’s su­per­vi­sor of e­lec­tion ad­min­is­tra­tion. “It emphasizes the fact that voters have more of a voice when they can rank up to three choi­ces. … We have more in­for­ma­tion about what voters are think­ing and what they’d pre­fer.”

The e­lec­tion to fill three at-large Park and Rec­re­a­tion Board spots re­quired seven rounds of tab­u­la­tion be­cause the race had seven can­di­dates and to­tals were close. Of­fi­cials could e­lim­i­nate only one can­di­date at a time in­stead of multi­ple can­di­dates who math­e­mat­i­cal­ly couldn’t reach the thresh­old to win.

The may­or’s race re­quired three rounds of tab­u­la­tion to get a fi­nal win­ner com­pared with five rounds in 2017.

In the Se­cond Ward City Council race, Robin Wonsley Worlobah beat Yusra Arab by 19 votes out of the more than 9,000 votes cast in the ward, which in­cludes parts of the Dinkytown, Cedar-Riverside and Longfellow neighborhoods.

Af­ter the first round, Guy Gas­kin and Tom Anderson were el­imi­nat­ed and Arab was lead­ing the race, but once in­cum­bent Cam Gordon was el­imi­nat­ed in the third round, the bulk of his sup­port­ers’ votes went to Worlobah.

Arab gath­ered more total se­cond- and third-choice votes than Worlobah, but if voters who ranked Arab se­cond or third had se­lec­ted Worlobah for their first choice, their votes wouldn’t count for Arab.

“Your pop­u­lar­i­ty in the first round is the most im­port­ant, fol­lowed by how you built a coa­li­tion with peo­ple who are drop­ping from the bal­lot,” Mas­sey said.

Start­ing Fri­day, a los­ing can­di­date in rac­es that re­ceived fewer than 50,000 votes and had 0.5% or less of a mar­gin can re­quest a city-fund­ed re­count. Arab said Fri­day she’s still con­sid­er­ing that.

“It’s con­fus­ing to those of us who ac­tu­al­ly under­stand the sys­tem, so think about all the im­mi­grant com­mu­ni­ties who don’t speak the lan­guage, don’t com­pre­hend what this is,” Arab said of ranked-choice voting. “I think we still need to do more work in terms of mak­ing sure it’s a fair play for ev­er­y­bod­y and that cer­tain com­mu­ni­ties don’t get dis­cour­aged from this proc­ess be­cause they don’t under­stand this new sys­tem.”

Bloomington, Minnetonka, St. Louis Park and St. Paul also used ranked-choice voting — the first year five Minnesota cit­ies used the meth­od at the same time, ac­cord­ing to FairVote Minnesota. Two of the four cit­ies saw turn­out rise from 2017.

“What drives turn­out is what ranked-choice voting fos­ters and that is com­pe­ti­tion, more can­di­dates, more choice,” Mas­sey said. “If it gets down to just be­tween two peo­ple, and the voters think … my vote is not going to mat­ter, they don’t turn out. … Ranked-choice voting is chan­ging the land­scape of how we en­gage in our local demo­crat­ic proc­ess in a bet­ter way.”

Mas­sey said the proc­ess went smooth­ly in all five cit­ies, al­though Bloomington of­fi­cials hand-count­ed bal­lots, delay­ing the call of two coun­cil win­ners.

No auto­mat­ed tab­u­la­tion soft­ware for ranked-choice voting is cer­ti­fied in Minnesota, but of­fi­cials hope it will be avail­able soon, speed­ing up the proc­ess.

In Minneapolis, vot­er turn­out rose in 2013 and 2017, even with­out con­ten­tious bal­lot meas­ures, al­though more voters still turn out for state­wide or pres­i­den­tial elec­tions. In 2020, 81% of Minneapolis voters went to the polls. But with most mu­nic­i­pal elec­tions na­tion­al­ly draw­ing 15 to 20% turn­out, Minneapolis’ 54% turn­out is rare.

“It shows peo­ple are en­gaged with the e­lec­tion proc­ess. … But there’s still 46% out there,” Gross­man said of voters who sat out the e­lec­tion. “It leaves us room for im­prove­ment.

Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141

Kelly Smith covers nonprofits/philanthropy for the Star Tribune and is based in Minneapolis. Since 2010, she’s covered Greater Minnesota on the state/region team, Hennepin County government, west metro suburban government and west metro K-12 education.

More Posts You Might Like:


Leading the way on ranked choice voting

As part of an effort to end divisive and negative election campaigns and polarized governance, U.S. election officials and policymakers are turning to ranked choice voting (RCV), otherwise known as instant runoff voting, to make our elections more civil, fair, and...

read more