In last week's election, more than 7,600 potential votes in Duluth's tight At Large City Council race went unused. In other words, poll-goers failed to use 18% of their collective vote. These uncast votes are sometimes referred to as undervotes.
City residents were given the opportunity to vote for two of the four candidates running for At Large seats, with the top two finishers elected to office.
But some of the supporters of At Large councilor-elect Derek Medved, who garnered the most support, strategically chose to cast just one of their votes, so as to elevate their candidate above the rest of the field. It's a practice sometimes known as "bullet voting."
Medved acknowledged the tactic but said he had taken down an earlier post that encouraged people to single-vote for him in the race.
"People wanted me. They chose me on the ballot. They wanted Medved on the City Council, whether they bullet voted their ballot or voted for two of us, they wanted me on, and I'm very grateful for that," he said to the News Tribune election night.
Roger Reinert, a former state legislator and Duluth City Councilor, referred to bullet voting in an At Large race as "the unicorn of Duluth politics."
"Because you can vote for up to two candidates, it essentially double-weights a single vote," Reinert said.
Bullet voting can disrupt a system where traditionally a centrist second-choice City Council candidate would fare well in an At Large race, Reinert said.
But Neill Atkins, who served 18 years on the Duluth City Council, said bullet voting is nothing new.
"There's always those people who are going to vote only for their own person," he said. "When I ran, you've got your core supporters who just want you."
Incumbent At Large Councilor Noah Hobbs narrowly fell short of a second term, finishing 255 votes behind fellow At Large Councilor Arik Forsman and 351 votes behind Medved.
Atkins referred to Hobbs as a "sacrificial lamb" in this year's close-fought bullet-voting battle.
But Dan Hartman, another former Duluth city councilor, said he believes bullet voting played less of a factor in last week's election than did the strong field of At Large candidates that emerged. Candidate Mike Mayou finished in fourth place with 7,869 votes — a surprisingly strong showing, in Hartman's eyes.
Hartman said the strong performance of Mayou's campaign likely served to further divide the Democratic vote, at the expense of Hobbs and Forsman.
While bullet voting certainly played a role in Duluth's latest city election, a News Tribune analysis of previous years' results shows the size of the undervote doesn't appear to be an anomaly. In fact, the 18% of "wasted" At Large votes this year is smaller than the city saw in its last two mayoral elections in 2015 and 2011, when the undervote respectively represented 25% and 18.2% of the potential votes.
Atkins noted that a number of voters weigh in only on the high-profile contest for mayor, often skipping many of the down-ballot races.
True to form, the top of the ballot commanded the most attention this year, as well, with only 232 Duluth voters not picking a mayoral favorite. That represents an undervote of just 1.1 percent for the top job at City Hall.
Duluth City Clerk Chelsea Hellmer suggested oftentimes voters may be unfamiliar with all the candidates.
"A lot of it comes down to candidate recognition," she said. "People go into the polling booth, and often in local races, they know the candidate that they're wanting to vote for, but they may be unfamiliar with the rest of the candidates."
Hellmer also chalks some of the At Large undervote to confusion. She said that while the ballot clearly states that voters may select two candidates to serve as At Large councilors, some people may misread the directions and assume they can vote for only one person.
When people submit their ballots, the scanning machine will alert them if they have cast too many votes or done anything to spoil their ballot. But it does not flag undervotes. In the event of a spoiled ballot, it can be canceled and a replacement ballot issued for the voter to try again.
In his own experience as an At Large City Council candidate, Reinert said he often encountered constituents who were unaware that they could vote for two candidates in the race.
"I do think it is confusing to voters, when in every other race it's pick one," he said.
"So, I think it is a reasonable supposition that a lot of voters go in thinking: I'll vote for one of these candidates, and that seems to be borne out by the pretty consistent number of people who undervote," Reinert said.
For his part, Atkins said he's not overly concerned if people choose to support only one At Large candidate.
"I don't think anything is broken," he said.