A city where people really do vote

Scandinavian heritage and civic-minded culture keep turnout high in Duluth, Minn.

Duluthians vote.

Even in 1991, when a record three feet of snow buried the city on Halloween, more than half of its registered voters still turned out for local elections a few days later - as the snow continued to fly and plows gamely worked on the hilly roads.

True, the mayor's race was hot that year: Voters ended up throwing out the incumbent. But this is Minnesota, where, to paraphrase Garrison Keillor, the people are above average, at least when it comes to election turnout.

"A little weather was not going to stop me," resident Steve Cope told the Duluth News-Tribune. "Voting is too important to miss."

It's an attitude shared by many here, who each election day keep Duluth among American cities with the highest voter turnout.

A simple explanation for the high participation rate is that Duluth is in Minnesota, one of the few states that allow voters to register on election day. When the maverick Jesse Ventura took the governorship two years ago in a late groundswell of enthusiasm, same-day registration allowed a lot of lapsed and new voters to turn out.

But a complete picture of high voter turnout in this mid-size city is far more nuanced. Duluth is a place where community involvement is an embedded value, a part of the Northern European heritage that has helped build the town over the past 150 years. It is a city of churchgoers, of union workers, of people who believe that government can do good - all factors that correlate to voting. Duluth, after all, is the birthplace of Bob Dylan, the folksinger-activist whose songs stirred a generation to action for social justice.

Minnesotans in general are known to be dedicated ballot-casters. For five straight presidential elections - from 1972 to 1988 - Minnesota led the nation in turnout, averaging nearly 69 percent of the voting-age population. (In the past two elections, Maine pushed Minnesota into second place, but only by a hair.) In the 1998 midterm election, Minnesota's 60 percent turnout - boosted by the candidacy of the blunt-spoken Mr. Ventura - was 24 percentage points above the national average.

And here in St. Louis County, which includes Duluth, more than 70 percent of the voting-age population turned out in the last presidential election. Nationwide, the figure was 49 percent.

Duluth's culture of civic engagement is a point of pride for many people here. "I've heard of families that sit around and watch City Council meetings on the local cable," says city clerk Jeff Cox. "They try to guess which way the vote will go."

Some aspects of life in Duluth would seem to weigh against high voter turnout: A somewhat higher-than-average proportion of its 85,000 residents are poor - generally an indicator of low voting rates.

And then there's the weather. In other parts of the US, a raw November morning like the ones they get here at the tip of Lake Superior is known to deter even stalwart voters.

But in Duluth, where rail cars full of taconite and iron ore roll in daily from the northern Mesabi Range, the people present proof that a strong ethic of civic duty can outweigh such deterrents to voting.

Residents readily link this civic-mindedness to their forebears from the socialist-oriented countries of Northern Europe, where voter turnout still averages well over 70 percent.

In addition to all the "-stroms" and "-quists" in the Duluth phone book, Scandinavian touches are everywhere - on bridges, on houses, in daily speech. The expression "Uff da" (the Norwegian analogue of "good grief") is still thrown around. First Lutheran is the largest church in town.

A surprisingly strong predictor of any state's "social capital" - participation in informal and formal civic activity, including voting - is the percentage of its population that is of Scandinavian stock, notes political scientist Robert Putnam in his book, "Bowling Alone."

"Politics is an all-consuming passion for people in Scandinavia, partly because they have more of a feeling that the central government in Stockholm or Oslo really has an abiding interest in common people," says Roger McKnight, a professor in the Scandinavian Studies Department of Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn.

Scandinavian countries have historically had a strong egalitarian culture, a highly unionized workforce, and a homogeneous population that enhances a sense of community.

In addition to its Scandinavian immigrants, northern Minnesota was also settled by Italians, Poles, Jews, Serbs, and Croats. The common denominator was hard work in a punishing climate, where the Arctic chill blows in from Canada and across the iron range.

And so it may follow that a place where it feels like winter nearly year-round would also foster community-mindedness. When three feet of snow dump on a town, people pull together.

This value so undergirds the foundation of Duluth society that many people speak of voting as a moral obligation. Some repeat the oft-used line: If I didn't vote, then I wouldn't have the right to complain.

Even cynicism - a common trait of nonvoters across the nation - isn't a deterrent to voting here. "Politicians remind me of pro wrestlers," says steelworker Brian Johnson, who nevertheless always votes. Standing on the sandy shore of Lake Superior, his daughter and grandchildren playing nearby, he says: "They walk in together, act like they're mortal enemies, then walk out together. It's a big show."

Indeed, what cynicism there is seems no match for the larger institutional forces in this city that encourage civic involvement - like church. Lutheranism in particular preaches that "being a good citizen is a way of serving God," says Peter Strommen, the Lutheran bishop of northeastern Minnesota.

The 28 congregations belonging to Duluth's Churches United Ministry mainly provide services for the poor, but now, at election time, they're also co-sponsoring candidate forums.

"In the Christian faith, a lot of the message of the gospels is the importance of community and social justice," says Jim Soderberg, executive director of the Churches United Ministry. "That message comes often from the pulpit, including at election time."

The most powerful political force in Duluth, outside the parties themselves, is the city's 60 labor unions, which have adapted as the local economy has evolved.

For years, Duluth served as the nation's premier shipping hub for iron ore. Tons were transported from the north by railroad, and then shipped across the Great Lakes. The city still has an industrial, port-town feel - its skyline punctuated by an electrical lift bridge that straddles the shipping canal.

But as many traditional steel-collar jobs have moved to other parts of the United States, and dock work becomes mechanized, the Duluth economy has become more service-oriented. Healthcare, telemarketing, and tourism are now big here. One quarter of the workforce today is employed in government.

Still, union membership holds steady at between 35 and 40 percent of the local workforce, in a nation that's now at 13 percent. Even the city ski resort is unionized. When faced with dwindling numbers, the local steelworkers union didn't get depressed: It got aggressive, unionizing 2,000 healthcare employees.

These numbers matter, especially at election time, because union members vote. Nationally, the AFL-CIO expects people from union households to represent about one-quarter of the US electorate on election day.

Person-to-person contact is the watchword this year: Like army captains, union shop stewards and other activists are prevailing on each worker to vote.

"Each union has its talking points," says Alan Netlin, president of Duluth's Central Labor Body. "The more specific the concerns, the better."

Lloyd Vienneau sits in his backyard on an unseasonably hot weekday and fields phone calls about the annual neighborhood rummage sale he organizes.

After nearly 40 years in Duluth's Park Point neighborhood, a four-mile-long spit of land that juts out into Lake Superior, Mr. Vienneau can't imagine ever leaving. But, he says wistfully, "things used to be tighter here."

Nowadays, it's hard to get people to come to meetings of the local community club, which represents neighborhood issues before the City Council and other bodies. It's like church, Vienneau says. The diehards come no matter what; when a crisis hits, everyone shows up.

This is but a small inkling that civic-mindedness, even in a place like Duluth, might be fraying. Voter turnout here in presidential elections - though still enviably high compared with the nation as a whole - is down 8 points since 1988. Among Minnesotans, presidential turnout has declined by 12 points since 1960.

Some of Vienneau's neighbors have noticed things aren't quite as friendly as they used to be. At the Park Point Rummage Sale, former City Council member Marcia Hales uses old campaign lawn signs to attract customers. One reads, "Say Hello to Your Neighbor" - a reflection, she says, of declining neighborliness here.

Down the road, a gaggle of college students check out a pile of sweaters. "I don't understand politics," says Amy Johansen of Duluth, a student at the University of Wisconsin at Superior. And she doesn't vote. "Most of what politicians say doesn't relate to me."

Duluth, like many other parts of the Northern and Midwestern US, is losing young adults like Ms. Johansen, many of whom move to find greater economic and social opportunities. As a result, the older skew in the Duluth population may be helping to keep turnouts here higher than in other parts of the country.

Some people here worry that larger forces may be threatening the culture of civic involvement. "Minnesota is about 20 years behind the times," says Craig Grau, a political scientist at the University of Minnesota at Duluth.

If states on the more cutting-edge coasts are any guide, some of which have seen steep turnout declines, the future for voting doesn't look promising.

Still, community-minded folks here aren't about to pack up their voting booths and concede defeat.

Donny Ness, who a year ago, at age 25, was the youngest person ever elected to the City Council, is involved with two organizations dedicated to convincing Duluth's young people to stay in town and get involved in politics.

The local chapter of the League of Women Voters has brought candidate forums into the public housing here; soon, it will distribute paper placemats with candidate information to local restaurants.

Community gardens, started five years ago, have taken off. Boy Scouts are making a comeback. Deputy Police Chief Bob Grytdahl has gotten Duluth involved in the National Night Out program that organizes neighborhood potluck picnics.

"Your neighbor doesn't have to be your best friend, but they don't have to be a stranger, either," says Mr. Grytdahl, a third-generation Duluthian. "Maybe we can put fixes in before things get as bad as other places."

PART 1 - OCT. 3 Why America is in danger of having the lowest turnout among the world's major democracies.

PART 2 - TODAY Why voters still flock to the polls in Duluth, Minn.

PART 3 - OCT. 5 A South Carolina county with one of the worst turnout rates in the US.

PART 4 - OCT. 6 A generation that doesn't vote - and what's being done to change their minds.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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