Voter turnout in St. Paul mayoral race largest since 2005
ST. PAUL—Mayor-elect Melvin Carter III greeted city workers outside St. Paul City Hall on Wednesday morning, the day after his historic victory that gave him more than 50 percent of the vote among a large field of candidates.
Carter spent the afternoon Wednesday with family and out of the public eye.
Though it was a non-presidential election, St. Paul residents surpassed expectations Tuesday, voting in numbers not seen in more than a dozen years for an off-year election. It was one of the first citywide tests of ranked-choice voting.
At least 61,639 voters went to the polls in St. Paul, electing Carter, a DFLer, mayor by a decisive margin. By comparison, a tough contest between incumbent mayor Randy Kelly and then-City Council Member Chris Coleman drew 59,500 voters in 2005.
"I think that Melvin was well-organized a lot earlier," said former St. Paul Mayor George Latimer, the honorary co-chair of the rival Pat Harris mayoral campaign. "I had one daughter supporting Melvin and another daughter supporting Pat. He's plenty smart. He'll put together a good team."
Ballots allowed voters to rank up to six of St. Paul's 10 mayoral candidates in order of preference, though Carter won with more than 50 percent of the vote and ended up not needing the benefit of second-choice votes.
In the days leading up to the Nov. 7 election, Ramsey County Elections Manager Joe Mansky had predicted that overall turnout would fall below 2005 levels, drawing at most 58,000 voters — or a quarter of all eligible residents in St. Paul.
In the end, an additional 3,600 voters showed up, driving participation up to about 27 percent of the city's voting-age population.
"That is (a smaller percentage) than 2001 (28.5 percent) and 2005 (28.2 percent) but larger than the last two elections for mayor," Mansky said.
Early voting accounted for a record 6,213 ballots, or more than 10 percent of all votes. The previous record was 6,208 in 1997, another year in which the state Legislature allowed absentee ballots without requiring written explanation.
In recent city elections, about 1,200 absentee ballots is more typical, Mansky said.
Skeptics had good reason to question whether voter participation would be as strong as it was. On Tuesday, the only other race on the St. Paul ballot was a school board election whose outcome was never in doubt.
And in St. Paul, turnout in nonpresidential elections has been in a virtual freefall since the 1990s, with some 12 percent of eligible city voters — at least a 23-year low — participating in city council elections in 2015.
In 2013, some 31,175 voters turned out for the low-key mayor's race to re-elect Coleman to a third term by a landslide, the first use of ranked-choice voting in a St. Paul mayoral election and the lowest turnout in a mayor's race in at least 30 years. Coleman won a majority of first-choice votes by an overwhelming margin against three challengers, and second-choice votes did not make a difference in the outcome.
Four years earlier, some 34,400 voters turned out and re-elected Coleman, a DFLer, over Republican challenger Eva Ng in the 2009 race.
In 2005, more than 59,500 voters went to the polls to elect Coleman to his first term, unseating Kelly.
Coleman, who is running for Minnesota governor, was not on the mayoral ballot this year, leaving the door open for candidates.
Critics of ranked-choice voting, or RCV, were unable to get a question on the ballot that could repeal the voting method in St. Paul. Approved at the ballot in 2009, RCV is intended to draw more voters by eliminating political primaries and enabling third parties to participate on election day without being cast as spoilers.
Despite the ranked-choice option, third party candidates fared poorly on Tuesday. Green Party candidate Elizabeth Dickinson drew less than 5 percent of the vote. Chris Holbrook, who chairs the state's Libertarian Party, drew less than 2 percent of the vote. Holbrook did no fundraising or door-knocking, and Dickinson's campaign got off to a later start than that of the other leading candidates.
"There's pluses and minuses," said Summit Avenue resident John Loban, shortly after voting at the Landmark Center on Tuesday. "It encourages too many candidates, which is not necessarily a bad thing but sometimes gives false hope to the candidates. If it increases voter participation, that's a plus."
On election night, Carter won the mayor's seat with 50.87 percent of the vote. If he had received less than 50 percent of the vote, second-choice votes would have been added to the tally.