Charter Commission examines even-year city elections

Supporters said aligning city elections with state and federal elections could boost turnout

With the goal of boosting turnout when city offices are on the ballot, the Minneapolis Charter Commission began in May to explore the possibility of shifting municipal elections to even years.

As allowed under state law, Minneapolis holds municipal elections in odd-numbered years; the last was in 2017, and the next is scheduled for 2021. Turnout is relatively low, averaging just over 31 percent in odd years since 2001, compared to 59 percent for even-year elections — a rate that rises to 75 percent in presidential election years.

But aligning municipal elections with state and federal elections isn’t as simple as changing a few words in the city’s charter. A variety of legal and technical hurdles stand in the way, according to Caroline Bachun, who outlined the challenges in a May 19 memo to the Charter Commission.

For example: The city uses ranked-choice voting for municipal elections, a system that has not been adopted for either state or federal races. Minneapolis doesn’t currently have equipment that can scan and tabulate both ranked-choice and non-ranked-choice votes on the same ballot.

Asking voters to switch between the two types of voting could create confusion, Bachun noted. It would likely also confuse the technology used to assist voters who are blind or visually impaired in casting their ballots.

And just squeezing all the state, federal and local candidates onto one ballot, as required under state law, would be difficult. The state could make exception to allow for a two-ballot election, but that scenario raises a related issue: when polls close, election officials typically check to make sure the number of ballots cast in an election matches exactly the voter count, a process called ballot reconciliation.

Despite those challenges, the Charter Commission is pushing ahead.

The chair, Barry Clegg, said a student from the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota was researching other, similarly sized cities that hold municipal elections in even years and would present his findings to the commission in June. That report would look specifically at the issue of ballot drop-off or ballot fatigue — when voters, faced with a lengthy ballot, are more likely to vote in the races listed at the top and less likely to vote in those at the bottom.

If ballot fatigue meant fewer votes were cast in races for city offices — which by law must be listed below federal, state and county offices on the ballot — then it would defeat the purpose of switching municipal elections to even-numbered years. But Clegg said the initial findings show drop-off only occurs on a small number of ballots, and the effect might be overcome by the boost in turnout that comes with aligning municipal elections with state and federal elections.

“We didn’t want to run tilting against windmills unless it would make a meaningful difference,” he said.

Clegg said it isn’t just about getting more voters to the polls when city offices are on the ballot; it’s about getting a more diverse constituency to participate in electing the mayor and City Council members. Turnout in municipal elections is lower across the board, but it’s especially low in communities that are already underrepresented at the polls, he said.

Some of the other hurdles to the shift are already falling. Clegg said Maine recently became the first state to adopt ranked-choice voting for statewide elections, and that has driven the companies that develop balloting technology to address some of the technical challenges outlined in Bachun’s memo to the Charter Commission.

Clegg said any proposal to amend the city’s charter probably wouldn’t go to Minneapolis voters until 2020, at the earliest.