Charter Commission proposal to change local voting years

Cam Gordon


This November, Minneapolis voters may have to decide whether to move the city elections to coincide with state and federal elections.
On April 17, a Minneapolis Charter Commission workgroup voted to recommend holding public hearings on a charter amendment to move city elections from odd-numbered years, when there are no state or federal elections, to even-numbered years.
It could be a tough decision.
“I’m conflicted,” said John Edwards of Wedge Live, who has been following and writing about Minneapolis politics for nearly a decade. “There’s value in giving city elections their own stage, to focus our attention on local issues and candidates. I don’t want races for City Council and mayor to become an afterthought – to get lost in the shuffle of state and national races. I worry the extra noise creates another hurdle for upstart campaigns already fighting an uphill battle against better-funded, better-connected candidates. But I have a hard time justifying why it’s not unquestionably preferable to have more people voting in city elections.”
Barry Clegg, the chair of the Charter Commission, is not conflicted. He started pushing for the change in 2017. “My views have not changed,” said Clegg after the meeting in April. “The evidence shows that we would clearly have more people voting in municipal elections with even-year elections, even with voter fatigue, and for me, that is very compelling. The more voices, the more democratic, the better, in my opinion.”
Even after accounting for people who don’t vote for offices further down the ballot, city elections staff estimated that more votes would likely be cast for mayor and City Council. In a 2018 analysis reviewed by the group, Dylan B. Adams concluded, “assuming that Minneapolis has the average drop in voting for local races of about eight percentage points, turnout would still be higher in midterm and presidential years than it was in 2017, which was 42.5%.”
Regarding costs, elections staff anticipate saving $2.5 million every four years if the odd-year city elections were eliminated.
Other cities have already aligned local elections with state and federal races. Woodbury, in 2018, and St. Cloud, in 2008, are two examples of Minnesota cities that moved to even-year elections. Nationally, in 2022, 13 local jurisdictions including Boulder, Colorado, made the move.
Yet fears remain.
During the 2022 campaign for it in Boulder, City Council Member Mark Wallach said, “our elections for City Council are a nonpartisan, in-depth conversation between the community and the candidates. That conversation will be lost if council elections are buried underneath contests for president, senator, house, state representatives and judges.”
Charlie Rybak, the son of a former mayor and founder of a local news group, Minneapolis Voices, called it a “horrible idea. The city races will get no attention, when in reality they need more attention. Imagine trying to run a citywide campaign during the last two presidential elections.”
This April, the outgoing mayor of St. Cloud, David Kleis, announced that he will be pushing to move city elections back to odd years. “I was the last mayor elected in an odd year. My first term was three years because of the charter change. I know why they did it — to save money — but what happens is the city election is so overshadowed by national and statewide elections,” Kleis said. “But the people you elect locally have the biggest impact on your day-to-day life.”
Southside resident Jesse Mortenson said, “I generally put a lot of faith in the belief that we get better public policy when a broader, more representative sample of the population participates. I think there is a reason that propertied NIMBY voices tend to dominate local governance in the United States; older and wealthier people constitute a large and disproportionate share of voters in municipal elections. And if you hold elections in odd-numbered years, you are going to get only the people who are motivated to go to the polls just for those elections.”
Mortenson, who has been involved in local campaigns and works for a company, Plural, that helps people track public policy data, thinks not just about how many people vote, but also who they are. According to data Mortenson found, in municipal elections “voters aged 65 plus have nine times the clout of voters aged 18-34. That’s bad for public policy. Our urban cities especially are getting younger and more diverse, and these folks’ voices are not being properly heard by elected officials.”
“Most elected officials,” Mortenson said, “follow the rational incentive to talk to the people who are likely to vote. And in municipal elections, that’s older and wealthier people.”
“Moving these same municipal elections into even years will not automatically produce a giant uptick in participation,” admits Mortenson. “But at least in that even year, election organizers have a chance to reach those people. President or governor or senator simply motivates more people to come to the polls. It will be up to campaigns to engage those folks with local issues.”
Mortenson is “optimistic about even-year elections as a chance to reach people with a vision that connects the big national issues that often make us feel powerless, to local action that can more easily be moved to empower us.”
Still, I worry.
Will local volunteers, donors and the focus of voters be spread too thin? Will competitive state races overshadow local issues?
What are the risks of losing the civic opportunity we have benefitted from for decades now? Every four years, people who care about the health of our city have the chance to focus in an intentional way on what we want for our city.
Perhaps we should concentrate instead on finding ways to increase participation in all elections. If all we are worried about is turnout, perhaps we should just have one election every four years and elect everyone along with the president.
Think of 2021. We had only local races and issues to discuss, debate, and decide on following one of the most challenging times in our city’s history. And that is what we did. We had the opportunity when we needed it, and we took it. Candidates were many and campaigning was intense. Voter interest was high. Turnout was 54%. Recall all the forums, local and independent media coverage, conversations and attention we gave to help improve our city.
If all that was competing with contested state or national races, would we have had the civic infrastructure, including organizations like the League of Women Voters, local and neighborhood press and media, neighborhood organizations and other grassroots organizations, to handle it?
I am not so sure.

Comments are closed.