For most Minnesotans, Tuesday, Aug. 12, was just an ordinary day. Only about one out of every 10 state residents was expected to take time to vote in the state’s primary election.
Our newspapers, like others across the state, published the voting information, such as poll times and locations along with sample ballots, so people should have been informed.
One of our newspapers — the Spring Valley Tribune — also did a preview on the only local contest in the area, something we do for all local races. The Tribune was the only weekly newspaper to feature the Fillmore County District 3 commissioner race, which has four people seeking the position that was left vacant by Chuck Amunrud.
It’s an important contest, not only for the residents of District 3 in western Fillmore County, but for the entire county because the person elected will have one of five votes on the many key issues facing the county board in the years ahead.
Our extra effort to highlight this election likely won’t increase the voter turnout much.
In 2008 when three people sought the Fillmore County District 1 commissioner seat after Stafford Hansen retired, Tom Kaase had 174 votes, Karen Reisner 139 votes and Cathy French 75 votes in the primary election.
In the general election, Kaase had 1,289 and Reisner 917 votes, a substantial increase in turnout locally.
Turnout in that district for the primary election was slightly better than the state average of 12 percent that year, but still poor given how important local races are to our future.
In 2008, it seems there should have been statewide interest in the primary as there was a key race in both parties due to an open Senate seat. Those 12 percent who showed up at the polls in September placed Democrat Al Franken and Republican Norm Coleman on the ballot in November for a contest that was decided by a narrow margin that took days to determine.
These turnout figures for primary elections aren’t unusual. The last time Minnesota surpassed a 30 percent turnout in the primary election was in 1982. The record low primary turnout is 7.73 percent in 2004, which is only slightly lower than the 9 to 10 percent estimated for 2014.
Prior to Tuesday’s election, Secretary of State Mark Ritchie predicted a slightly better turnout of 10 to 15 percent. However, since 2000 when 17.19 percent of the voters turned out, primary election turnouts have fallen. In the last primary, only 11 percent of registered voters turned out.
With so many politicians not abiding by the endorsing conventions of their parties, the primary takes on added importance in Minnesota. This year, there are several Republican candidates for governor in a rare closely-contested battle, and several more are seeking the Republican slot for senator this year. Even the DFL, stocked with incumbents for statewide office, has a contest as Matt Entenza filed to run against incumbent Auditor Rebecca Otto.
The low turnout, and seemingly low interest this year, is a bit puzzling since Minnesota typically leads the nation in general election voter turnout with close to 80 percent each year.
Some blame it on the date. August is a time for summer vacations, local celebrations and other fun, not politics, during the days of summer we all treasure.
However, the move to August was made in 2010 when Minnesota needed to comply with the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act to allow enough time between the primary and general election for absentee ballots. Prior to 2010, the primary was in September, after school started and the summer had wound down, yet turnout wasn’t much better, and in some cases it was worse.
Another factor in Minnesota, at least every four years, is that the candidate for president is chosen at caucuses, not primaries. States with primaries that include presidential preferences tend to have higher turnout, although nationwide they still only average in the 20 to 30 percent range.
However, primaries in states that don’t include presidential preferences average a bit over 14 percent, a level Minnesota is slipping below even as it continues to lead the nation in general election turnout.
Perhaps one factor is that Minnesota, where it is unusual to have one party control so many offices as has been the case the past two years, is somewhat independent and not as partisan as other states. In some states where one party always dominates, the primary may determine the general election winner since the majority party is that strong.
Still, that doesn’t explain the low turnout in a non-partisan county race for a position that has much interest since local politicians are closest to their constituents.
There aren’t any obvious answers to a Minnesota trend that doesn’t appear to be changing anytime soon. A very few voters will continue to determine who gets on the ballot in the November general election.
For those people who are part of the few that took the time to vote, congratulations for helping shape our state in the years to come. For the majority of people who didn’t take the time to exercise their right to vote in the primary, don’t you dare complain about the lack of choices when Nov. 4 rolls around.