Analysis Politics

Experts Say Voting Laws in the Twin Cities Helped to Usher in Historic Election Results

Cinnamon Janzer

The metropolitan area elected a succession of breakthrough candidates from historically marginalized communities. Can other cities follow its lead?

On November 7, fanfare rightly erupted around Minneapolis’ election to City Council of Andrea Jenkins, the first openly transgender Black woman elected to office in the United States. St. Paul had a historic election of its own, voting its first Black mayor, Melvin Carter III, into office. A year prior, Minneapolis elected Ilhan Omar, the nation’s first Somali-American legislator, to the state legislature.

Not only are these recently elected candidates all members of historically marginalized communities in some way—be it along racial, gender, or religious lines—but they all ran on progressive platforms as well, focusing on issues like affordable housing, equitable policing, and equal economic opportunity. Yet they won their elections in a metropolitan area that is predominantly and historically white, both in terms of the general population and in elected office.

Although there exists considerable variation overall, the Center for American Progress points out that white people have tended to vote for conservative candidates in presidential elections over the past 50 years. So what is it about Minnesota, and the Twin Cities specifically, that has set the stage for such historic results in such rapid succession? According to local political experts, it’s a confluence of factors that include voting laws designed for access and a cultural conception of political participation as a moral duty.

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A Cultural Tendency Toward Turnout

During its November 7 election, the Twin Cities enjoyed a number of liberal candidates in competition for everything from city council seats to the mayor’s office. “Even though we might have thought of all of these candidates as [Minnesota’s Democratic Party], they did have different perspectives on their priorities and main areas of interests,” explained Dr. Andrew Karch, a professor in the University of Minnesota’s political science department. “We had competitive campaigns.”

As one example, he said, “Many of these voters probably voted the same way in the presidential election, but have different perspectives on the direction and future of the city.”

It’s this competition between ideologically similar yet tactically divergent candidates, he says, that leads to such high turnout rates, evidenced by the 43 percent rate in the city during the recent election, compared to 33 percent and 20 percent in 2013 and 2009 respectively. And turnout rates tend to be linked to progressive results. While conventional wisdom previously held that those who vote are a decent enough representation of non-voters, a New York University study found that the opposite is true—that they can actually differ on important issues often relating to the role of government in redistribution policies, with non-voters being more economically liberal. By increasing turnout rates, the percentage of left-leaning voters and their elected candidates should rise too.

Of course, these factors aren’t a magic potion for historic results across the board. They do not account for the  groundswell of organizing and activism that supported campaigns, the specific strategies from the candidates themselves, or the endorsements from key groups that may have swung on-the-fence voters. For instance, for its next mayor, Minneapolis still elected a white man, Jacob Frey—albeit one who is a member of the state’s version of the Democratic Party. But they can certainly make a difference, and are worth examining in greater detail.

Omar is Muslim, self-describes as an intersectional feminist, and is vocal about her support for refugees, having been one herself. She is an advocate for a $15 minimum wage, affordable housing, and equal pay for men, women, and people of color. Carter is a resident of St. Paul’s Rondo neighborhood, a largely Black area that was decimated by the construction of Interstate 94 in the 1950s. His platform touches on many of the same notes as Omar’s, envisioning “a city that works for all of us … especially those who have historically been left behind.” And Jenkins is an award-winning poet, writer, and performer who ran on an equally progressive platform, citing affordable housing as an important issue alongside fair policing, climate change, and equal access to democracy.

Jenkins’ acceptance speech touched on the changing tides that her election signified: “As an African-American trans-identified woman, I know first hand the feeling of being marginalized, left out, thrown under the bus. Those days are over,” Minneapolis’ KMSP reported. Omar’s 2016 acceptance speech also spoke of broken barriers, adding that “I want to remind you all that what we did tonight, no one thought was possible.”

Competition among candidates, though, isn’t the only reason for the Twin Cities’ high turnout rate, sources told Rewire. It’s also in part because they’re nestled within a state characterized by what Daniel Elazar referred to as a moralistic political culture. Dr. Paul Goren, a professor and chair of the political science department at the University of Minnesota, explained that “we have a long-standing political and civic culture here that values participation in local communities. Different states have different norms. Minnesota has very public-spirited norms. People are expected to vote and get involved in their communities.”

As Karch put it, “political involvement is considered to be a healthy endeavor.” It also stands to reason that this attitude toward political participation would also manifest as a high number of candidates running for office, which then reinforces high voter turnout thanks to the competitive races they inspire.

Another component Goren mentioned was the state’s penchant for volunteerism. In 2016, the Corporation for National and Community Services ranked the Twin Cities as number one in volunteering among large cities and Minnesota number two among the states behind Utah. “Volunteerism can spill over into the political domain,” Goren said, explaining that it can take the form of everything from people helping elderly people and those with limited mobility to get to their voting places to volunteering in voter turnout efforts before elections and assisting with handing out ballots on Election Day. All of this is, perhaps, reflected in Minneapolis’ formal Voter Ambassador Program, a volunteer program designed to “help engage a broader spectrum of city residents … to come out to vote.”

Minnesota’s Election Laws

“You’ll find that there are very few barriers to voting in Minnesota. The laws are geared towards making voting as easy as possible,” Goren said. An examination of Minnesota’s election laws, which are distilled in accessible language on the Minnesota secretary of state’s website, do indeed appear to be designed to increase, rather than inhibit, access. Goren said that he sees the low legal barriers to voting in Minnesota as “likely a by-product or reflection of a cultural commitment to good citizenship and civic participation.”

In 1974, Minnesota became the second state, behind Maine, to enact same-day registration, allowing Minnesotans to register to vote at their polling place, either on Election Day or during early voting, which begins a whopping 46 days before Election Day in the state. Early voting is carried out through absentee ballots, which Minnesotans can submit in person or by mail, no reason required. Ballots cast early can even be tracked through the secretary’s website.

In order to vote, Minnesotans only need to live in the state for 20 days prior to the election, and those convicted of felonies can vote as long their sentences have been completed.

When it comes to voting itself, sample ballots can quickly and easily be found online, again through the secretary’s website. Voters who choose to vote in person on Election Day are not only allowed by law to take time off of work to vote, but they have the right to do so “without losing [their] pay, personal leave, or vacation time.” This stands in contrast to most states, where, according to AFL-CIO, employees either aren’t guaranteed time off to vote or have to juggle requirements like giving notice to employers or voting during specific times that their employer gets to set.

However, Karch cautions against simply replicating Minnesota’s laws elsewhere. He’s a proponent of removing restrictive policies such as voter ID laws—which disproportionately affect voters of color and low-income voters—rather than adding policies around same-day registration and early voting. There is evidence, though, that policies like those do increase voter turnout—like this 2009 study from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which found same-day and Election Day registration to be effective tools for increasing turnout if implemented properly.

Karch also noted that lowering the barriers to competitive campaign races might, in turn, inspire a similar cyclical rise in voter participation. “Another possibility would be taking steps to ensure that there’s more political competition, whether it’s through how district lines are drawn or something else, to spark competition and all that it includes,” he said.

Last, Goren added that some of the turnout Minnesota enjoyed during its municipal elections might very well be due to the post-President Donald Trump world we find ourselves in: “What tends to happen is, when a conservative or liberal takes over the White House, it motivates angst and anxiety and promotes participation from people on the opposite side of the ideological fence.”

“There’s a lot of concern in liberal cities and sanctuary cities that is raising involvement and awareness, and it’s likely that it’s spilling over into local ballots,” he said.

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