Voter turnout in Minnesota was once high for many reasons; Simon asks state to lead again

ST. PAUL -- 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 better than in any other state. In fact, the state actually...

ST. PAUL -- 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 better than in any other state. 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 (most valuable player) 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.

But in the 2014 election, the state fell from No. 1 to No. 6. Now, Simon is traveling the state, issuing a singular challenge to Minnesotans: Bring the state back to No. 1 in voter turnout.

Simon is doing everything he can think of to get the word out: He has teamed up with the state’s professional sports teams on advertisements encouraging people to vote, he has started a competition among college campuses to see which student government groups can register the most people to vote and he has targeted nearly-voting-age students, setting up the first-ever statewide mock election with nearly 300 participating high schools.


One of the biggest turnout changes, Simon said, 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 laws allowing for same-day registration. In the 2012 election, about 18 percent of Minnesota voters, 527,867, registered at their polling locations.

Proponents argue that same-day registration increases voter turnout by eliminating arbitrary deadlines that cut off registration when voters are most interested

"In some states, if you don’t register by mid-October, that’s it," Simon said. "You’re out. ... In Minnesota you can roll out of bed that day, go right to the polling place and register."

Many argue the baseline of the state’s traditionally high voter activity comes from a sense of civic responsibility.

It’s a squishy idea that’s hard to back up with hard data or research.

Part of voter turnout is demographic and socioeconomic, with a voting population that is usually older, with higher income and better educated. A third of Minnesota adults older than 25 have a bachelor's degree or higher, 11th among the states.

When it comes to other measures of civic engagement, Minnesota does pretty well, too. The Minnesota Compass project 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 state Republican Party. "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."


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 otherwise would have stayed home.

"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 (Jesse) Ventura was on the ballot we broke records for turnout because there was someone who represented those voters."

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.

Look closer and you will see other races are less certain. Minnesota’s congressional delegation is split between Republicans and Democrats, and at least three congressional seats are considered competitive this fall.

Control of the Legislature, especially the House, has flipped back and forth.

The governor’s office often switches hands, 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.

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 state, meaning there are about 68 government entities per every 100,000 people. That’s higher than many states.


"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.

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," Chairman Ken Martin of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party said. "That’s disturbing to me."

There is no statewide race on the ballot to drive turnout this year, but all 201 seats and control of the Legislature are up for grabs, as well as a few competitive Congressional seats.

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," Simon 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."


Bierschbach and Kaul write for, a Twin Cities-based online newspaper.

Related Topics: ELECTION 2016STEVE SIMON
What To Read Next
The North Dakota Highway Patrol investigated the Wednesday, Jan. 25, crash.
Fundraising is underway to move the giant ball of twine from the Highland, Wisconsin, home of creator James Frank Kotera, who died last month at age 75, 44 years after starting the big ball.
“We see that when things happen in the coastal areas, a few years later, they start trending toward the Midwest,” said Rep. Ben Krohmer, serving his first term in the House.
“This is sensationalism at its finest, and it does not deserve to be heard in our state capitol,” Rep. Erin Healy, a Democrat and one of 10 votes against the bill in the 70-person chamber, said.