Are All Voters Welcome?

Thursday, May 18, 2017

By Susan Stehling

Diverse communities underrepresented in Minnesota’s political process

With 74 percent of eligible adults voting in the 2016 presidential election, Minnesota had the highest voter turnout numbers in the country. But Minnesotans can’t ignore the fact that, just like in the rest of the country, voter turnout here is declining, and areas of our state with more diverse populations and higher than average poverty rates already vote at lower rates than the state as a whole. This is of increasing concern in a state with a growing population of residents of color. 

Detailed Minnesota-specific data can be difficult to use for apples-to-apples comparisons. Voters are tracked by age (age 18+) or eligibility (subtracts estimated noncitizens and felons from the total) and geography, which may be divided by county, voting district or precinct. The most reliable data on race, ethnicity and income comes from the Census.

Nonetheless, here are examples that pair Minnesota Compass demographic data (http://bit.ly/2mpONbW) with turnout numbers from a Star Tribune analysis of data from the Minnesota Secretary of State (http://strib.mn/2mpMLZr).

As Diversity Increases, Turnout Decreases
Mahnomen County, in the north central part of the state, is Minnesota’s most diverse, with 53 percent of its residents being people of color (42 percent Native American) and 25 percent living in poverty. It had one of the state’s lowest turnout rates, with just 54.9 percent of adults casting a ballot in 2016 and 57 percent doing so in 2012.

Areas in the southwest part of the state have similar numbers with Hispanic residents replacing Native Americans as the demographic of note. For example, Nobles County, home to the majority minority city of Worthington, is Minnesota’s second most diverse county with 38.8 percent people of color (27 percent Hispanic) and 26 percent of residents living in poverty. In 2016, 54.6 percent of adults cast ballots; it was 53.6 percent in 2012.

Hennepin and Ramsey Counties are also home to high percentages of diverse residents. Thirty-six percent of Ramsey County residents are people of color (third highest county in the state) and Hennepin has 30 percent (fourth highest), and neighborhoods in both counties with the highest percentages of diverse residents also typically report lower than average voter turnout.

Jeff Narabrook, voter outreach director with the Office of the Minnesota Secretary of State, confirms that calculating reliable turnout figures that include demographic data is surprisingly difficult, but he summarizes the big picture similarly. “What has been true over a period of elections is that Latino and Asian voter turnout nationally lags far behind White and Black voter turnout,” he says by email. (The Census sample size for Native Americans is too small, and the margin of error too large for that data to be useful.)

State Must Better Engage Diverse Residents
At MCF, an important part of our Advocacy Agenda involves strengthening democratic systems and encouraging civic participation by voting. So it is crystal clear that before November 2018, when the U.S. holds important mid-term elections (see sidebar), Minnesota must get a better understanding of why our current voter engagement efforts miss so many of our state’s diverse residents and then quickly determine what we can do better.

Ramsey County Elections Manager Joe Mansky clarifies how critical it would be if just one-third of Ramsey County’s 100,000 unregistered, eligible adults registered and voted in 2018.

“Participation by these voters is hugely consequential in St. Paul and statewide,” says Mansky. “Here are some numbers: Sen. Franken won by just 312 votes in 2008; Mayor Kelly won by 403 votes in 2001; Gov. Dayton won in 2010 by 8,800 votes. If an additional 30,000 to 35,000 Ramsey County residents voted, they would’ve affected each of these races in a major way.”

Why aren’t these residents voting? There are likely a multitude of reasons. Mansky cites race, ethnicity, language, educational attainment, income and home ownership as factors that probably contribute. But he believes strongly in one constant across communities with low turnout. Residents feel ignored.

“People in these areas say, ‘We don’t register to vote because no one is talking to us.’ And when we ask candidates why they’re not visiting these folks, they say, ‘I don’t put much effort into those districts because not many people there vote.’ It’s a vicious cycle that we need to break,” says Mansky.

Nonprofits Must Lead
Government distrust is likely a primary driver, so Mansky thinks a successful effort to turn out more new voters must be nongovernmental in nature. He believes nonprofit organizations and staff who are already working with and trusted by people in these communities must lead the voter registration and turnout work.

Narabrook concurs and recommends the “Nonprofit VOTE” website (www.nonprofitvote.org) as an excellent resource. Nonprofit VOTE partners with nonprofits to help constituents participate and vote. It is the largest source of nonpartisan resources to help nonprofits integrate voter engagement into ongoing activities in communities underrepresented in the political process.

In fact, a 2014 study by Nonprofit VOTE showed that nonprofits reached precisely the people most in need of assistance and encouragement to vote: populations with a history of lower turnout who are frequently neglected by traditional political campaigns and parties.

So, what can foundations do? Support and fund the nonprofit organizations doing the engagement work. Ensure our elected representatives are advancing solutions that address these documented problems of voter disengagement in communities of color. Discourage legislators from spending time fixing baseless problems with voter ID or provisional balloting. As these “solutions looking for problems” will only further disengage voters already neglected by traditional political campaigns and parties.