Non-November elections plagued by low turnout

Andrew Pritchard

Minnesota fills vacancies in the Legislature by special election, ensuring no district goes through a legislative session without a representative in St. Paul.

But fewer voters come to the polls for special elections or local elections not held in November – so-called “off-cycle” elections – than turn out to vote in November general elections, according to numbers from the secretary of state’s office.

“The need for the citizen to have representation is so important that you have a 28-day special election,” said Secretary of State Mary Kiffmeyer.

Getting representation for a district, for example, whose legislator has died during a session, balances the low voter turnout, she said.

In the state Senate District 7 special election held in January, 13.9 percent of voters participated, compared with 70.7 percent in the 2000 general election.

In real numbers, while nearly 30,000 District 7 voters cast ballots in the 2000 state Senate race, fewer than 5,600 decided the January result – but Democratic Sen. Yvonne Solon’s vote is worth as much in the Legislature as any other senator’s.

Another state Senate special election held in January for District 67 drew fewer than one in five eligible voters, while in the 2000 general election, more than two-thirds of the district’s voters cast ballots.

And in the state House, a special election held in March was decided by 17.6 percent of eligible voters, in a district that had nearly 70 percent turnout in the 2000 general elections.

Kiffmeyer said voters have difficulty keeping track of when off-cycle elections, such as city elections and school district bond

referendums, are held, and she believes most elections should be held with the November general elections.

“This is a very frequent call that folks make, complaining,” she said. “I think the general consensus among the public is to maximize the November ballot.”

Low off-cycle voter turnout is not unique to Minnesota.

For decades, California cities have scheduled “local-only” elections, usually in the spring, and have seen fewer voters when races for major state or national offices are not on the ballots.

Research released in March by the Public Policy Institute of California found turnout for local elections increased 36 percent when the local election coincided with a presidential race.

Gubernatorial elections increased voting in local elections 26 percent, the institute found, and presidential primaries drew an additional 21 percent of registered voters to local contests.

“There’s a cost involved in voting, a cost in time and preparation,” said Paul Lewis, a research fellow at the institute who coauthored its municipal elections study.

Lewis said each issue on the ballot adds to voter interest, and an election must reach a “threshold point” for voter turnout to become significant.

He also said Minnesota’s special-election turnout followed trends similar to those found in his study.

“In general, (a legislative seat) is still a pretty low-visibility contest,” he said.

Lewis’ study concluded that approximately half the turnout in California’s municipal elections could be explained by the time of year the election was held.

“That timing issue seems to swamp everything else,” he said.

Lewis also said low voter turnout could skew elections in favor of groups more likely to vote.

“The suspicion is, although we were unable to prove that here, that these low-turnout elections are skewed toward the higher-status, higher-educated voters,” he said.

Kiffmeyer said she didn’t think “harm” accurately described low special-election turnout, but she said she does think it’s better if more voters are involved in making the decision.

“I think it’s something the Legislature should take a look at,” she said, adding that holding elections in November whenever possible would avoid accusations that an election’s timing was being manipulated.

Kiffmeyer also said one of her major proposals would make voting easier for students by changing the state’s primary elections to early August instead of early September.

“(Students) can vote from home more often in August,” she said. “They can come back and the ducks will have settled and they can focus on preparing for the November elections.”

Lewis said California is considering increasing turnout by allowing same-day voter registration, a law Minnesota already has.


Andrew Pritchard covers state politics and welcomes comments at [email protected]