MANKATO — Reports of intense interest in the 2018 general election were not exaggerated, with Minnesota hitting a 16-year high in turnout for a mid-term election and Mankato seeing a roughly 50 percent jump in votes cast compared to 2014.
The high turnout was widespread, but some extraordinary numbers showed up around local college campuses.
In Mankato's Precinct 7, which votes at Minnesota State University's Wiecking Hall, the number of votes cast was up about 78 percent compared to four years earlier. In the St. Peter precinct that encompasses Gustavus Adolphus College, the traditionally high turnout there was apparently even higher with a 42 percent jump over 2014 vote totals.
"I think the high turnout is something to be celebrated," said Jill Lock, political science professor at Gustavus Adolphus College. "Minnesotans should feel good that we have an electoral process that makes it really easy for people to vote."
Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon estimated statewide voter turnout at 64 percent for Tuesday's election, short of the 75 percent in the 2016 presidential election year but well above the 51 percent of the previous mid-term elections. With nearly 2.6 million voters, Minnesota set a record for total votes cast in a non-presidential election and the highest voter participation since 2002.
County-by-county turnout numbers, which require estimates of the total number of eligible voters in each county, aren't available yet. But the number of votes cast compared to the last gubernatorial election year show growth in all south-central Minnesota counties.
That growth in votes cast was far from uniform, however. Sibley County had just 9 percent more voters than in 2014, Watonwan County had 11 percent more and Faribault County saw growth of 18 percent. Enthusiasm was higher in Waseca County (total votes up by 24 percent), Brown County (a 26 percent jump), Le Sueur County (33 percent) and Nicollet County (nearly 34 percent.)
In Blue Earth County, the number of voters skyrocketed nearly 39 percent — from 20,201 four years ago to 28,135 on Tuesday — led by Mankato's 50 percent rise. A portion of the growth probably reflects an increase in the population since 2014, but most of it stems from enthusiasm to participate in the democratic process and a voter affection for the increasing number of options for voting, including absentee balloting, said Michael Stalberger, who oversees elections for the county.
Blue Earth County residents cast nearly 7,700 ballots before Election Day arrived this year.
Stalberger also credited competitive races, including contests in Mankato for Blue Earth County Board and City Council seats. And college organizations, particularly at MSU, made repeated efforts to reach out to potential voters with information about the ballot and about voting procedures.
"Here in the county, we had a good turnout by our younger voters," he said. "... It just seems like we have younger folks who are more interested in the election, and hopefully that will follow them as they age."
At Gustavus, both liberal and conservative student groups were working to make the college a repeat winner of the Ballot Bowl. The voter-registration competition between Minnesota colleges is sponsored by Simon's office, and Gustavus was the defending champion after registering 63 percent of its student body two years ago.
"We want to keep that," said Amelia Espinosa, president of the Gustavus College Democrats.
Pre-election efforts to get people to the polls were intense again this year, ranging from one-on-one conversations to offering tacos to people who registered to vote.
"We had a fantastic turnout," said Espinosa, attributing it to many students deciding they needed an antidote to the hopelessness they felt about their government. "I think the 2016 election changed that mentality for a lot of people, and they realized it's really important to vote."
When election returns came in, there were wins and losses for virtually every voter, Espinosa said. But most people who got involved, even by doing no more than casting a ballot, seemed to feel good about it: "There's generally a pretty positive vibe."