How Jacob Frey won reelection

A man holds a microphone and holds up a fist in celebration.
Mayor Jacob Frey gives a speech during an election party as early results bode well for his campaign on Tuesday. Frey was declared the winner Wednesday.
Tim Evans for MPR News

Jacob Frey’s opponents identified their strategy to defeat the incumbent mayor: don’t rank him.

Supporters of Sheila Nezhad, Kate Knuth or other candidates could mark whatever candidate they preferred as their first-choice candidate. As long as they didn’t include Frey as an option anywhere on their ballots, the hope went, the anti-Frey vote would automatically consolidate to unseat him via ranked-choice voting. And so activists embraced the slogan: “Don’t Rank Frey.”

But thousands of voters didn’t listen. Not only did Frey collect the most first-choice votes — 43 percent — but another 9 percent of voters ranked him as their second choice, and 7.5 percent as their third choice. 

The result: another term for Frey.

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Final results of 2021 Minneapolis mayor race

Frey’s win wasn’t a fluke of ranked-choice voting, nor driven by low turnout. In fact, voter turnout this week was the highest of any Minneapolis mayoral election in at least 40 years. 

Turnout in Minneapolis mayoral elections

Instead, Frey won by building up the broadest coalition of any of the candidates running. That included his base of around 43 percent of the electorate — twice as high as any of his opponents, and more than his two primary rivals combined. 

First choices in 2021 Minneapolis mayor race

But that fell short of a majority. Frey got there by piling up the second- and third-choice votes his opponents had hoped to deny him. 

Ultimately, nearly 60 percent of all ballots cast ranked Frey either first, second or third. He was the only candidate ranked on more than half the ballots.

Percent of all ballots ranking each candidate

Who ranked Frey?

The “Don’t Rank Frey” campaign wasn’t a total failure. Voters for Sheila Nezhad, one of the three top candidates, generally left Frey off their ballots — 83 percent of her votes went to Kate Knuth, the ultimate runner-up, versus just 5 percent to Frey.

But other candidates’ supporters didn’t apply the same discipline or tactical approach to their ballots. Of more than 25,000 first-choice votes cast for more than a dozen minor candidates, for example, Frey collected more than twice as many as Knuth through ranked-choice voting. 

Somewhere between 25 and 55 percent of Knuth’s supporters appear to have ranked Frey, too, though this didn’t end up affecting the result. Exact figures here won’t be available until the city election office releases full results after the election is certified later this month.

Final outcome of Minneapolis mayoral votes

“Exhausted” ballots are those where every ranked candidate has been eliminated. Under Minneapolis’ ranked-choice voting system, these ballots are removed from the tallies. 

Where Frey’s votes came from

Tuesday’s election featured sharp geographic divides. Nezhad racked up wins in neighborhoods south of downtown — including much of the Lake Street corridor — and around the University of Minnesota. But she did much worse in most other parts of the city.

Frey, in contrast, did well downtown and across wide swathes of southern and western Minneapolis. He won 104 precincts city-wide, compared to 28 for Nezhad, two for fourth-place candidate A.J. Awed and one for Knuth.

2021 Minneapolis mayor first-choice votes

This represented an improvement for Frey since his first election in 2017. In that year — against a field with more major candidates — Frey did similarly well in downtown and southwest Minneapolis. But his growth in north Minneapolis in particular represented an expansion of Frey’s coalition from 2017, when these neighborhoods tended to vote for civil rights attorney Nekima Levy-Pounds.

2017 Minneapolis mayor first-choice votes

The public safety amendment’s impact

At the same time as Frey won reelection, Minneapolis voters rejected a ballot measure replacing the Minneapolis Police Department with a new Department of Public Safety. Frey opposed this referendum, while Nezhad and Knuth both supported it. 

The votes for mayor and the public safety amendment appeared to be closely linked for most voters. The areas that voted for the public safety amendment were the same ones where Nezhad won — south of downtown and around the university.

Votes for Minneapolis Public Safety Department

Precincts that voted for Frey tended to oppose the amendment, and the relationship was extremely close with only a handful of exceptions.

Frey votes versus Public Safety Department 'No' votes

In contrast to the public safety referendum, Minneapolis voters approved another progressive ballot measure, authorizing rent control in the city.

The rent control measure’s best precincts were the same ones where Nezhad and the public safety amendment did well. But unlike them, rent control also won a host of precincts in north, northeast and southeast Minneapolis.

Votes for Minneapolis rent control