Lori Sturdevant is a long-time columnist for the Star Tribune and observer of Minnesota politics. As questions abound about the state of our democracy with gridlock and controversy in national politics, we wanted an assessment of the state of democracy right here in Minnesota. MCF advocates for a more prosperous Minnesota through inclusion and equity, including strong democratic systems and practices that give communities the power to create their own futures. Sturdevant provides a picture of the work ahead of us.

By Lori Sturdevant
Illustrations by Bill Ferenc

Democracy endangered, in Minnesota? That’ll be a short speech – or so I thought when MCF’s Public Policy Director Bob Tracy invited me to describe threats to Minnesota’s democracy at this year’s MCF annual conference. Minnesotans are democracy’s exemplars, I avowed. What could threaten participatory self-governance in the state that has led the nation in voter turnout in 10 of the past 12 national elections?

Then I checked with the turnout tabulators at the Minnesota Secretary of State’s office. They reported that presidential election turnout peaked in this state in 2004, and has drifted lower in each succeeding presidential cycle. Yes, Minnesota’s 2018 midterm turnout – 64 percent — led the nation. But that still meant that more than a third of the state’s eligible voters sat out an election that featured more vigorously contested congressional races than the state had seen in 40 years.

Maybe I shouldn’t be so smug, I decided. By many pro-democracy measures, Minnesota is indeed a nation-leader. But that doesn’t mean this state is shielded from trends that are weakening citizens’ control of their governments throughout the land.


• Since 1974, Minnesotans have allowed voters to register at the polls on Election Day – an option that’s widely credited for high turnout. In 2012, the state’s voters rejected a constitutional amendment that would have required voters to display a government-issued photo ID card in order to vote, a policy that has disenfranchised thousands of would-be voters in other states.

And yet:
A pending court case at the Minnesota Court of Appeals seeks the names and contact information of 26,000 voters who registered at the polls in 2016 despite being challenged by a partisan election judge. The plaintiff in the suit is the Minnesota Voters Alliance, which holds that voter fraud is rampant and warrants a crackdown. A district judge in July 2018 ruled that data about the 26,000 challenged registrants should be released to the group, despite Secretary of State Steve Simon’s objection. What the Alliance hopes to do with the information isn’t clear, but my guess is that it doesn’t intend to send thank-you notes for voting.

• Minnesota primary elections are open to all voters. The state does not ask voters to register their party affiliation or to publicly announce which party’s primary ballot they’ll cast.

And yet:
When the 2016 Legislature reinstituted the state’s long-gone presidential primary for 2020, it bowed to pressure from both major parties to require that “the party choice of any voter who voted in the most recent presidential nomination primary” be public information. That’s bound to deter participation by anyone who does not want to announce which party he or she favors. That’s why Simon is asking the 2019 Legislature to repeal this feature of the presidential primary law.
• The Minnesota Legislature responded to the Watergate scandal in the 1970s by creating a groundbreaking system of public campaign financing. Candidates for state office – governor, other state officers and the Legislature – can receive significant public subsidies if they abide by spending limits. For decades, the system has been popular with both parties and deemed effective in minimizing special-interest influence.

And yet:
After the U.S. Supreme Court opened the floodgates on independent political expenditures, spending in the most contested Minnesota legislative races has soared to more than a half-million dollars, more than five times greater than the limits set for candidates when they accept public financing.

Unlike contributions to candidates, the source of the money that buys those independent ads is often shielded from public view. Minnesota’s laws don’t require disclosure when ads stop short of directly calling for the election or the defeat of a particular candidate. That “express advocacy” disclosure requirement explains why Minnesotans are now barraged by messages declaring candidates “wrong for Minnesota” and/or urging citizens to contact the ad’s target to express an opinion. Efforts to close that disclosure loophole have foundered in recent legislative sessions; another attempt is expected in 2019.

• Minnesota is a state that’s friendly to the rise of third parties and independent candidacies. Candidate filing fees are affordable and can be waived with the submission of a relatively modest number of signatures on a petition.

And yet:
Minnesota has not acted to assure that multi-candidate contests are decided by majority rule. Plurality rather than majority victories decided four straight gubernatorial elections, from 1998 through 2010, leaving a majority of voters dissatisfied with the result.

Ranked-choice voting would better assure majority rule. It’s in use in city elections in Minneapolis and St. Paul, and will go into effect in St. Louis Park in 2019. An effort to ease its adoption in other municipalities is afoot at the 2019 Legislature. But likely because it would encourage more choices on the ballot, it faces significant resistance within the two-party establishment.

• Minnesota’s penchant for divided state government has spared it from the gerrymandering – the manipulation of district maps for partisan advantage – that has perverted representative democracy in other states. Five of the last six Minnesota district maps were drawn by judges after legislators and governors failed to agree about how to equalize district populations. Those judges have avoided maps that yield a conspicuous partisan advantage.

And yet:
Nothing guarantees that the judicial branch will again play that role. Proposals to permanently assign the work to an independent panel of retired judges have struggled to advance at the Legislature. Advocates for that change report that they are encountering new resistance this year from Democrats who believe they can control all of state government in 2021-22, when new maps must be drawn.

• Minnesotans earn high marks for their service to others. A 2016 study by the Wilder Foundation’s Minnesota Compass found the state ranking fourth among the 50 states in voluntarism and 10th in service to neighbors.

And yet:
The Star Tribune reported in 2016 that willingness to seek local elective offices had dropped to such an extent that hundreds of elective municipal offices had no candidates to fill them in that year’s election.

This review leaves me convinced that even in Minnesota, concern about the health of representative democracy is well justified. Certainly, the stakes are as high in this state as anywhere. Widely participatory democracy is essential to government’s legitimacy. That in turn affects government’s ability to perform the role Minnesotans expect of it: creating the conditions today that will allow people to thrive tomorrow.

A broadly inclusive democracy is also crucial to a just society, which in turn is necessary for society’s stability. There’s great truth in the protest slogan, “No justice, no peace.” When some segments of the population doubt that representative democracy serves their interests, they are bound to assert those interests in other ways. To the extent their methods include violence, they’ll bring on a backlash, triggering a vicious cycle of worsening injustice and ever-weakening democracy.

With consequences so profound, the flashing of so many signs of trouble should shake the stewards of Minnesota’s democracy out of their complacency. Surely those stewards include this state’s charitable community. As a lifelong journalist, I understand philanthropy’s need to avoid partisan activity. But I consider service to democracy to be a fundamental mission of my profession. It ought to be so for philanthropists too.

Lori Sturdevant is a Minnesota journalist and author. She retired in 2018 after 43 years at the Minneapolis Star Tribune covering state politics and government, including 26 years as an editorial writer and columnist. She is the author, co-author or editor of 11 books, most recently "When Republicans Were Progressive" with former U.S. Sen. David Durenberger. She presented at MCF’s 2019 annual conference.