Predicting voter turnout is always difficult, including for political scientists. The same will be true this November in the Minneapolis elections. But for those who contend that confusion resulting from ranked-choice voting (RCV) or 35 candidates running for mayor will depress voter turnout, they had better think again. Instead, examination of the factors affecting voter turnout and evidence from races and jurisdictions where there are competitive multicandidate races suggests Minneapolis could have a larger than expected turnout this fall.
Two more factors
But there are two other factors that are significant drivers of voter turnout: the appearance of a close or competitive election and candidate choice. There is powerful evidence that voters are more likely to vote when there is a reality or perception that their vote matters. All things being equal, voters like competitive horse races and will show up when they think their vote will make a difference. Related to that, when there are competitive elections, candidates and parties generally do a better job identifying and mobilizing voters to turn out, acting on the same belief that every vote matters. Second, in situations where individuals feel there is a real choice they are more likely to vote. Voters who do not find candidates whom they wish to vote for, or who see races where they are not excited about their choices, are less likely to vote.
Anecdotal and hard evidence support the notion that competitive elections and candidate choice are powerful forces affecting turnout. There is evidence that the Electoral College depresses turnout in noncompetitive presidential states. Generally competitive close elections have higher turnout than lopsided victories. Around the world multicandidate (more than two viable choices) races yield higher voter turnouts than non-competitive or two-person races. In 2010, some of us predicted that the shift to an August primary would decrease turnout, as was the case in the other states that did the same. The close DFL gubernatorial race demonstrated how candidate choice and competition increase turnout. Finally, for those who have worked on real campaigns (including me), they know that candidates and parties hustle more for voters when it is perceived to be a close election.
Looking at Minneapolis elections
Now apply all this to the coming Minneapolis elections. All indications are that the mayors race is very competitive and that there is no clear favorite. There are perhaps four or more individuals who have a real chance to win, each appealing to different constituencies. This means already candidates are working hard to mobilize their voters and that Minneapolis residents have several choices for mayor. These factors alone should positively affect turnout.
But now throw RCV in and the calculations change. Some might argue that RCV and the appearance of too many choices will confuse voters and depress turnout. Only elitists lacking faith in the people should make such an argument. Instead, RCV, as it was designed to do, enhances voter choice and creates real possibilities that candidates who were the second or third choice of voters might win. This creates, as is happening in Minneapolis, candidates who are working harder to persuade voters to consider them a second choice and it is encouraging voters to think, in a race that seems even more competitive than usual, that their vote will matter. Bottom line: There is a reason to vote.
Four years ago Minneapolis used RCV for the first time and turnout was abysmal. Critics labeled RCV as the reason. I was asked by the City of Minneapolis back then to evaluate the implementation of RCV. My report indicated that the main reason for low voter turnout was a perception that the mayors race was not competitive. The 2009 was not a good test of RCV. Moreover, there was no or little evidence that RCV depressed turnout among the poor or people of color. Yes, some areas of the city did have signs of voter confusion, but again no evidence that RCV depressed turnout. Evidence of use of RCV in the United States and around the world substantiates that conclusion.
Overall, given the low voter turnout and perceived lack of competitive elections in 2009, it is almost too easy to predict that in 2013 turnout will increase across the board. Many factors will drive this, including the hard competition of many fine candidates in a close election where RCV could determine the outcome of the mayors race.
David Schultz is a professor of political science at Hamline University and the 2013 Leslie A. Whittington national award winner for excellence in public affairs teaching.