Formula for low-voter turnout in Saint Paul city elections: Disenfranchisement

For the 2021 elections, Minneapolis experienced a historical turn-out for an odd-year election with 56.5%, which is attributed to the policing amendment. In contrast, the Saint Paul voter turnout is around 34.4% which is 4% less than the last mayoral race in 2017. In layman terms, only 1 out of 3 registered residents voted. On the surface level, many residents will chalk this low turnout due to a lack of strong competition as opposed to 2017. While looking deeper into data and talking to residents, we see that turnout decreased disproportionately in certain wards over others [i.e Vote_Diff%]. What could explain this?

When I ran for Saint Paul mayor, I had a data-centric platform and informed the public about the voting inequities. As shown in table above, Saint Paul elections are determined by Ward 3, and Ward 4, which comprises 45% of total vote (i.e Vote_Weight) and corresponds to wealthier residents. To win an election, you need to reach out to the residents that vote. The DFL-endorsed candidates have access to VAN (Volunteer Action Network), which allows the candidate to target potential Democratic aligned voters with precision; however the outreach excludes new voters, and those not affiliated with the Democratic Party. I believe that is the reason why voter outreach stayed fairly consistent in well-off communities. The heat-map below displays the voter turnout by precinct

In contrast, I did not have access to the VAN service and canvassed households in a non-discriminatory manner, though the precincts were pre-selected to areas where incumbent Mayor Carter had low voter turnout in 2017, as I might get more traction. In 2017, the two strongest competitors were current Ward 1 Council Member Dai Thao (12.3% vote), and former Council Member Pat Harris (24.8% vote). Council member Thao, in particular, is a Hmong candidate. I’ve door knocked in some precincts where Thao had the greatest voting percentage located primarily in the East Side (Ward 6,7) and parts of Frogtown (Ward 1). I found out that these communities were Southeast Asian, and there were considerable language, and cultural barriers to communicate effectively. Without any Hmong candidate running in 2021, it’s unlikely for these residents to be informed and motivated to vote. Here are the geospatial maps to suggest this: I’ll be comparing Dai Thao’s 2017 Voting% compared to the difference in voting% from 2021 to 2017.

2017 Mayoral Candidate Dai Thao’s Voting percentage:

The Voting Turnout Difference by Precinct:

Visually, it should be clear that the precincts that Thao did the best had the lowest turnout in 2021, indicating low Hmong/Southeast Asian turnout. We can glean two important results from this finding.

First, the regular voters within Ward 3 and 4 had slight decline in turnout, even under non-competitive races. Second, there are marginalized ethnic communities that are not being represented in Saint Paul and local politics. My analysis suggests that the Hmong community was absent, but so were other diverse communities such as Karen, Somali, and etc. How should we address this inequity?

I believe it is our elected officials, city administration, and the major political parties to increase outreach to marginalized communities. They have the power and resources to get these communities involved. It will require a paradigm shift, and political will for them to “expand” their priorities beyond their voting constituents to disenfranchised communities. I’ve been told often that it’s a losing political strategy to reach out to underserved communities that don’t vote. What does that say about how our system works and our priorities? 

Finally, it’s worth noting that there is structurally low voter turnout for transitory residents such as renters, immigrants, and students, who are in the city/community for a short period of time and feel less invested. This is the reason why you rarely see politicians canvas in high-density apartments, unless of course, you are a fool like me. 

Abu Nayeem is the founder of the Saint Paul Open Data Initiative, which takes publicly open data, and creates community reports. In 2021, he ran for mayor of St. Paul and door-knock in communities throughout Saint Paul, including apartment buildings, and public housing facilities.