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.