Esther Agbaje, a candidate for the Minnesota House, speaks with voters on primary day. Agbaje won her primary--and turnout in her district quadrupled from 2016. Credit: Esther Agbaje Campaign

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Four years ago, when Fue Lee decided, at age 24, to run for a north Minneapolis House seat, he didn’t have a lot of reasons to think he’d beat a powerful incumbent. Lee was born in a Hmong refugee camp in Thailand, and he’d recently graduated college. His opponent, Joe Mullery, had held a seat in the statehouse for almost Lee’s entire life. 

But Lee believed that by engaging with constituents, many of them Hmong voters who’d been left out of the political process, he could win. And Lee did, increasing primary voter turnout almost by half in the process.

Lee’s run, unusual at the time, foreshadowed a 2020 election trend. Fueled by enthusiasm for millennial candidates from immigrant backgrounds, Minneapolis broke records for voter turnout in the August primary, despite the pandemic and a shift to people voting mostly by mail. 

Statewide, the percentage of voters who cast ballots was one of the highest in decades–barely bested by 2018, which included an open gubernatorial race and four competitive Congressional primaries.* Minneapolis’ 5th district, where Ilhan Omar defended her seat in a primary challenge, recorded by far the highest turnout in the state, at 43 percent. And Minneapolis voters turned out at an even higher rate–49.1 percent–contributing to the city’s largest number of primary voters in more than 50 years.

Esther Agbaje, 35, and Omar Fateh, 30, defeated longtime incumbents for legislative seats in downtown/north and south Minneapolis districts. Both of these 2020 races quadrupled turnout from four years earlier. 

Minneapolis’ Ward 6 voters, in the heart of the city’s East African community, doubled turnout over 2016, for an 11-way city council election. (The ward ultimately chose 36-year-old housing activist Jamal Osman.) 

And Ilhan, 37, Congress’ first Somali American and first refugee, fended off well-funded primary challenger Antone Melton-Meaux, in a race that modestly increased turnout from the 2018 primary–when the seat was wide open.

The surge in energy from new constituencies, Democrats hope, could help drive the party’s success in November.

Lee, now 28 years old and finishing his second term at the state Capitol, sees his own experience reflected in this year’s new voter turnout.

“These are not new people in the sense that they are new to our communities,” he said. “They are integral parts of our communities. But candidates before them may have not worked as hard to engage with them.”

In an emailed statement, Ken Martin, chair of the Minnesota DFL, noted that many of the candidates who won had also earned the party’s endorsement on the strength of their grassroots support. 

“To me, this underscores the importance of giving the people of Minnesota meaningful decision-making power within our party,” Martin wrote. “The result is that we empower candidates with important lived experiences and fresh perspectives to emerge, reinvigorate our party, and continually reshape our values, our approach to politics, and the policies we work to pass.”

In Senate District 62, Omar Fateh topped an establishment powerbroker in Jeff Hayden.

“We couldn’t have done it without the surge of grassroots support that came from south Minneapolis,” Omar said in a Facebook post declaring victory Tuesday night.

The groundswell of enthusiasm showed that voters were ready for change, Esther Agbaje said Wednesday. “This district is ready to pass a baton to a new generation,” she said. 

Agbaje, a 35-year-old lawyer who won the DFL nomination for a House district representing parts of north and downtown Minneapolis, said she was “pleasantly surprised” that turnout was so high despite the pandemic. Mail-in ballots helped make sure there weren’t long lines for voting in person. And, she added, “People with absentee ballots had some time with the ballot to do their research.” 

A vote-by-mail success story…for now

At least two-thirds of the votes cast statewide came from mail-in ballots. Mail-in voting has expanded rapidly in Minnesota and around the country during the pandemic. 

Some other battleground states, including neighboring Wisconsin, have reported postal delays that resulted in thousands of ballots arriving late. Minnesota, by contrast, has avoided those problems so far, Secretary of State Steve Simon said in an interview Tuesday. Even with “off-the-charts” turnout, the vote-by-mail system ran smoothly through the primary, he said, crediting local postal officials.

“So far cooperation has been good in terms of making sure everyone is following protocols, that election-related mail gets priority,” Simon said. “It is flagged, it is targeted, it is treated with special care. And we want that to continue to November.”

Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon visited a Mounds View polling place on primary day. Simon’s office provided personal protective equipment for COVID-19 safety at polling places. Because so many people voted by mail, lines to vote in person were short. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Yet on Thursday, President Donald J. Trump directly admitted he wanted to cut funding to the postal service in order to undermine mail-in voting for this fall’s presidential election. And Friday, the Washington Post reported that the postal service had sent letters to 46 states including Minnesota, warning it couldn’t guarantee all ballots would be delivered in time to be counted this November.

For the primary, Simon’s office advised returning the ballot a week before Election Day. But depending on reports about postal delays, the state might change the guidance for the general election, Simon said. For instance, instead of advising voters to send in their ballots seven days early, Simon might decide to recommend nine.

Inspiring the next generation

Fue Lee saw the August primary as evidence the DFL was evolving.

“The more that we can get Minnesotans to be engaged in the political process, the better it will be in actually having a Minnesota that reflects the values that we want to see,” he said. “And not those of people who have political access and capital.” 

Lee is hopeful the state party and Joe Biden’s presidential campaign will prioritize these communities in November. A friend recently applied for a position organizing Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in Minnesota for Biden, a level of interest that Lee sees as a promising sign.

Martin says it’s critical for the party to engage with immigrant communities year-round, not just at election time, and to “make space for new leaders within our party to actually lead.” He added, “that means listening to them when they bring forward the needs and concerns they’re hearing from constituents and working in partnership with them to pass meaningful legislation to address those concerns.”

In 2017, shortly after Lee (and Ilhan, another primary-challenge winner that year) took their oaths of office as state legislators, they joined other representatives to form the People of Color and Indigenous (POCI) Caucus. In its first year, the POCI caucus numbered nine members; today, just one election cycle later, it includes 19. After this week’s primary, it appears poised to gain several more for the next session, including Esther Agbaje and Omar Fateh.

Minnesotans don’t need to count chairs in the legislative chamber to notice the change. Before the pandemic, POCI Caucus legislators traveled throughout the state to meet with communities of color, Lee said. He recalled a trip to Worthington with state Reps. Aisha Gomez and Jay Xiong to support local Latino organizers who were getting out the vote for a referendum on school funding. 

Lee asked the young organizers who in the room wanted to run for office. Several hands popped up.

*August 19, 2020–this sentence has been modified to match the final data from Secretary of State Steve Simon.

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Becky Z. Dernbach is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.