Our Twin Cities friends could learn a thing a two about civic involvement from the folks who live up north.
Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie — in Brainerd last week to drum up interest in voting among students — said the northern Minnesota region’s average voter turnout during presidential elections was about 90 percent compared to a Twin Cities turnout average of between 60 and 70 percent.
Among the barriers the metropolitan voters face, he explained were a higher percentage of: young people who are less rooted in an area and more low-income people, who may have transportation issues.
Ritchie’s office has studied the absentee ballots requested for the 2012 election and the number returned so far and estimates Minnesota is right on track for a statewide voter turnout of about 78 percent of eligible voters.
His goal, he said, is to “try to raise everyone up” when it comes to participation at the polls. Two groups he singled out in an interview were young people and people who have shown no interest in voting. Last week he visited both the Brainerd and Staples campuses of Central Lakes College. Typically, he said, the Student Senate will pop for a noon-hour pizza to attract a crowd and he’ll talk to the students and encourage them to vote. If election officials can get the first-time voters over their fears of an unfamiliar, process, he theorized, it may start them on a lifetime habit of voting. Extra barriers to young voters, according to Ritchie, are overseas service in the armed forces; a schedule that includes school and multiple jobs, lack of transportation, their mobility and fear of the unfamiliar.
Because young voters go to the polls in lower percentages than other segments of the population, Ritchie said politicians spend little time addressing issues that are important to them.
“If you make that assumption,” he said of the politicians. “You will reinforce that.”
Non-voters, including those people who think voting will only encourage long-winded, self-serving politicians, require a different strategy. Ritchie said he tries to get the perpetual non-voters to look at the broader principles of democracy rather than the campaign issues of the day.
His office has a program where people are encouraged to vote in honor of a veteran in their family. Ritchie sometimes wears a button noting that he votes in honor of his late father, a World War II veteran. He tries to energize the non-voter to go to the polls on behalf of a family member who sacrificed on behalf of the nation.
“When your only focus is current events,” he said. “you can get cynical pretty fast,” Ritchie said.
Here’s hoping Ritchie’s efforts to get more people voting are successful. Politics is too important to be left to the politicians.