Duluth voter turnout was close to last presidential election

The COVID-19 pandemic led to a deluge of mail-in voting, but fewer college students attending classes in Duluth are reflected in city vote totals.

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(Getty Images)

Voter turnout in Duluth for this year's general election remained about on par with the last time the nation picked a president.

About 80.3% of the city's registered voters cast ballots in the latest election, compared to 80.5% in 2016. That percentage could still rise a bit as military service members' votes and those from abroad are added to the equation, Chelsea Helmer, director of administrative services for the city of Duluth, said.

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But turnout varied widely across the city. Strong participation levels could be found throughout town, with roughly 90% of registered voters casting ballots in Lakeside precincts, 89% in Piedmont Heights and 86% in Duluth's westernmost 34th Precinct.


There were pockets of weaker turnout to be found, however, such as Precinct 10, which includes the University of Minnesota Duluth, where just 56% of registered voters cast ballots, as compared with 78% in 2016.

Given the COVID-19 pandemic, those numbers come as no surprise to Cynthia Rugeley, an associate professor of political science at UMD. She warned against reading too much about student engagement into the precinct figures.

"I'm sure they didn't sit out this election. Look at the statistics. There was a record turnout of younger voters," Rugeley said. "I suspect they just didn't vote on campus because so many of them are not living on campus right now.

"Is there much enthusiasm for either of the candidates? No. But there is enthusiasm for voting," Rugeley said. "It is important to them, when you look at things like: What's the economy going to do? What's happening with the coronavirus? What's going to happen with student loans? Those are the kinds of things that are important to young people."

Helmer noted that students can opt to vote in either the place where they are attending school or back in their hometowns. So in regard to the apparent downturn in Precinct 10 voter turnout, she said: "It does not correlate with whether or not that particular demographic voted in the election."

"Also, when we're looking at registered voters, it's good to keep in mind that that registered voter number is made up mainly of students who resided on campus during the previous election," Helmer said.

The city received about 22,500 absentee ballots this year by mail, and about another 3,025 people voted in person before Election Day. All told, those votes represent 51.3% of the votes cast in this year's election.


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Absentee voting this year shattered all prior records, said Helmer, who noted that only about 6,000 absentee ballots were cast in Duluth during the last presidential election of 2016.

"When you're looking at it through the lens of maintaining safety, considering COVID-19, it is the safest way to cast your ballot, because there is no personal interaction between you and an election judge or an election administrator," she said.

Even in post-pandemic times, Helmer suspects large numbers of future voters will continue to cast absentee ballots "because they have found that it is an easy and convenient way to vote," she said.

"Bottom line, Duluth still had really great voter turnout," Helmer said. "I think it just shows the level of community engagement."

Minnesota led the nation in voter turnout. The Minnesota Secretary of State estimates that about 79.3% of all people eligible to vote in the state cast ballots this year, beating out Maine, with 79.2% turnout, for bragging rights.

Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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