“First in the nation” Minneapolis elections face shortage of precincts, turnout disparities

As we learned after last November’s midterm, Minneapolis voters have a lot to be proud of. The city’s top election official, City Clerk Casey Carl, presented a report yesterday touting Minneapolis’ “first in the nation turnout” that “exceeded averages for the state of Minnesota and the entire nation.”

Turnout of voting-age citizens in Minneapolis was 68% in the 2018 general election. The statewide average was 64%.

Despite this nation-leading success, turnout within the city varies widely. South and Southwest Minneapolis (whiter, wealthier) have the highest voter turnout. North Minneapolis and other pockets of the city — with much higher rates of poverty, people of color, and students — vote at much lower rates. These disparities are longstanding. In 2018, there was a spread of between 35-40% between the highest and lowest turnout Minneapolis precincts.

Council Member Phillipe Cunningham, who represents Ward 4 in North Minneapolis, noted that the highest turnout precincts in his Ward are also the places with a history of racially restrictive housing covenants.

One thing that can boost historically low turnout is a competitive election — and that’s hard work for candidates and campaigns according to Cunningham: “Council Member Ellison and I, in our 2017 election, increased voter turnout in our wards, but it was like pulling teeth.”

On the bright side, Cunningham noted that even “our lowest numbers [in Minneapolis] are still higher than the national turnout.”

Not Enough Precincts

Looking ahead to 2020, City Clerk Casey Carl pointed to a growing problem: a shortage of voting precincts. Despite a population that has increased from 370,000 to over 422,000 people, Minneapolis has 40 fewer precincts than it did in 1990. This leads to long lines for overwhelmed precincts — and the potential for voters to abandon those lines.

From the city’s analysis of the 2018 election:

“Of its 132 precincts, Minneapolis had 23 sites—which is 17 percent of total precincts—serving more than 2,500 registered voters in November 2018. This exceeds recommended precinct-size guidelines promulgated by the Office of Secretary of State, which have a limit of between 2,000 to 2,500 registered voters maximum per precinct.”

Carl said that by December of this year the city would have to adopt their precinct plan for next year’s busy presidential (primary and general) election year: “We should be considering, and we’ll be back in front of the council to talk about whether 132 precincts is the correct number.”

Another change that Minneapolis Election and Voter Services is recommending in order to accommodate a high turnout presidential election year: offering between six and eight early voting centers. This would be an increase from the four sites used in both 2016 and 2018.

One out of every four Minneapolis voters cast an early ballot in 2018 — either in person or by mail. During the last midterm in 2014, just nine percent cast early votes.

Real Election Stories of the Wedge

I can personally attest to the fact that we need more precincts in Minneapolis. I worked as an election judge in the Wedge during the 2018 general election. A few hours before polls closed I got a text from a neighbor who knew I was working precinct 10-1 (north Wedge). She said she’d heard about some disturbingly long lines at another precinct in the same building, so I went to check it out. There hadn’t been any significant lines in my precinct at any point during the day so I was surprised to see a line of voters in 10-2 (south Wedge) snaking up from the basement and almost out the door of the school.

Long story short, your hero abandoned his post in 10-1, went downstairs to 10-2, and spent the next several hours performing a large number of same-day registrations — ultimately saving election day.

More 2018 general election turnout facts from the report:

  • The largest number of voters in line at the opening of polls at 7 a.m. was at Ward 13-Precinct 7 (Kenny Community School) with 319 people in line. Voters in this precinct continued to appear in large numbers throughout the day.
  • At 8 p.m., Ward 3-Precinct 1 still had 139 people in line to vote. The final voter was checked-in at 8:30 p.m., and all voters in line were served, as required under state election law.