A delayed U.S. Census and gridlock in Minnesota government could lead to political chaos in 2022: a giant at-large statewide election for all of the state’s U.S. House seats.
Such a wild election happened once before — nearly a century ago — in 1932, after the Farmer-Labor Party governor vetoed a redistricting plan passed by a Republican-controlled Legislature.
After litigation stretching all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, Minnesota’s secretary of state administered an unusual at-large election, where each political party nominated up to nine candidates, who all competed against each other in a giant 32-candidate race. The top nine vote-getters won seats in Congress.
The unusual circumstances leading to the 1932 at-large election could replicate themselves in 2022 — though the legality of such an election now is debatable after changes to federal law over the past century:
When the Census Bureau finalizes its population estimates from the 2020 census, Minnesota is expected to lose one of its eight seats in Congress.
The Republican-controlled state Senate, DFL-controlled state House and DFL governor aren’t expected to be able to agree on new maps. That could lead judges to draw new maps, as happened in 2012, 2002 and 1992.
The U.S. Census isn’t expected to deliver data necessary for redistricting to states until the end of September, six months later than usual. The compressed timeframe could make it difficult to enact new maps by the state’s February deadline to adopt district lines.
If all that happens, a federal law provides that “if there is a decrease in the number of Representatives and the number of districts in such State exceeds such decreased number of Representatives, they shall be elected from the State at large.” (Another federal law, however, bans at-large Congressional districts, setting up a likely legal dispute.)
That would mean primary votes choosing seven congressional candidates in each party, and then voters in the November 2022 general election voting for up to seven candidates for U.S. House.
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A DFL sweep?
One possible outcome — aside from headaches for voters — could be a DFL sweep of all seven House seats, unlike the current scenario where Democrats and Republicans each represent four Minnesota districts.
The DFL sweep could happen because the DFL, with its base of voters concentrated in the Twin Cities, hasn’t lost a statewide election since 2006. But the DFL has had much more mixed success in races for Congress and the Legislature, where district boundaries mean a candidate drawing 90 percent of the vote in one district does nothing to help a candidate one-district over in a 50-50 race. A statewide race could bring the DFL’s statewide electoral muscle to bear on all seven House seats.
In 2020, for example, DFL candidates for the U.S House received more votes than Republican candidates. In a system of proportional representation, that might lead to the DFL winning four seats and Republicans three. But if most voters voted party-line in a statewide at-large election, that narrow edge could lead to Democrats winning all seven seats.
When Illinois voters in 1964 elected their state House of Representatives via an at-large election, after a similar dispute over redistricting, all 118 Democratic candidates on the ballot won due to straight-ticket voting combined with Lyndon Johnson’s landslide win in that year’s presidential election.
In the 2018 midterm election, every DFL statewide candidate beat every Republican statewide candidate, with an average of 52.6 percent of the vote to 42.8 percent for the Republicans. In 2014 — when Republicans took control of the Minnesota House of Representatives — DFL statewide candidates similarly won every statewide race, with an average of 51.5 percent of the vote vs. 42.9 percent for Republicans.
Less likely given recent trends, but not impossible, could be the opposite situation: A Republican sweep of all seven seats. Though no Republican has won a statewide race since 2006, the 2022 election will be a midterm election— a political environment that’s typically good for the party that doesn’t hold the White House. With Democrat Joe Biden the current president, Republicans could be poised for a good year — though this same dynamic didn’t help Republicans win statewide races in similar environments in 2010 and 2014.
Ticket-splitting making the difference
A sweep isn’t the only way such a wild election could play out, though. In 1932, many observers also expected a clean sweep — but got something very different.
“It is often assumed that the great majority of voters will vote a straight ticket, which would have the effect of giving all of the seats to the dominant party, but such was not the case here,” wrote Roger Shumate of the University of Minnesota, in a 1933 article in “The American Political Science Review.” That election saw Farmer-Labor Party candidates get 38 percent of the vote, Republican candidates 37 percent, and Democrats 25 percent.
There was considerable variation between candidates of the same party, with the strongest Republican candidate outpolling the weakest by 17 percent, the strongest Farmer-Laborite beating the weakest by 49 percent, and the strongest Democrat beating the weakest by 74 percent.
This split verdict in 1932 doesn’t mean that will happen again. Split-ticket voting has been falling for decades, and 1932 was a particularly unsettled political environment with the rise of a popular third party, the Farmer-Laborites.
But split-ticket voting hasn’t disappeared entirely, especially in Minnesota. In 2020, there were six state Senate districts that voted for Biden for president but a Republican for state senator, and another two that voted for Republican Donald Trump but a Democrat for senator.
Some of that represents voters literally splitting their ticket, voting for candidates of different parties. It also involves “undervoting” — voters who vote for the highest-profile races, but don’t fill in the bubble for more obscure races down the ballot. In 2020, DFL candidates for U.S. House combined for 162,000 fewer votes than Biden at the top of the ticket, while Republican House candidates combined to underperform Trump by just 9,000 votes.
In fact, despite Democratic dominance statewide last year, the top vote-getting House candidate was a Republican, 6th District Rep. Tom Emmer.
Any number of factors could break straight-ticket voting that might otherwise lead to one party winning a clean sweep of all seven House seats in this hypothetical at-large election. Particularly popular candidates might win crossover votes, while particularly unpopular ones could underperform. Some voters might prefer candidates from their own region of the state, regardless of party. Other voters, faced with seven different choices, could intentionally choose a mix of parties. Third-party candidates could also draw votes away from Democratic and Republican candidates.
Outcomes still uncertain
Such an unusual at-large election is far from a foregone conclusion. Though experts believe Minnesota will probably lose a House seat, it’s still possible it gained enough new residents to keep its current total of eight, once the Census releases its final results this fall. If so, the 2022 election could be held under the current map if no new map is put in place.
Even with a lost seat, Minnesota’s divided government could still find a compromise redistricting plan, or courts could draw a nonpartisan map on time despite the crunched timeline.
Litigation could also find that a 1932-style at-large election is illegal or unconstitutional, leading to an alternative election.
Legal wrangling over redistricting has already begun, with a lawsuit filed Monday against Secretary of State Steve Simon seeking to prevent the continuation of Minnesota’s old district boundaries in the event of a redistricting deadlock.
Correction: This story has been updated to correct the number of victorious Democrats in the 1964 Illinois election. All 118 Democratic candidates won.