Lagging student vote, working-class GOP ballots doom Dems in Grand Forks
Grand Forks Republicans, running on shaky ground on the city’s north side, didn’t yield an inch on election night, successfully defending five of the party’s seats in the North Dakota Legislature — and coming within inches of taking the sixth. That’s two state Senate seats, and three of four House seats.
It was a remarkable result, coming in what had looked like swing districts of students and middle- or working-class voters. In Districts 18 and 42, which together include UND and downtown Grand Forks, the gains that Republicans made in 2016 now appear semi-permanent.
"We've obviously got to rethink some things,” said Kylie Oversen, state chairwoman of the Democratic-NPL — and former Grand Forks legislator — said in review of an election in which Democrats fared poorly statewide. “We've got to re-envision how we do organizing and how we build support and build trust across the state."
The rest of the country is also untangling what the results mean for the future, too. Polling projections had suggested Joe Biden and other Democrats might surge to the White House and in Congress. Instead, Biden has won the presidency on a reduced House majority and Democrats look uncertain to take the Senate.
"This election was weird, and this election was weird nationally, and it was also weird locally,” UND political scientist Bo Wood said. “A lot of the things we thought we understood about the electorate have worked less well in any election that has to do with Donald Trump."
District 42 includes UND and neighborhoods on both the east and west. Eight years ago, it was a dependable Democratic stronghold. In 2012, Democrats won the state Senate seat with 57% of the vote. But they haven’t won it since.
One of the biggest changes it’s seen is dwindling student turnout. In 2012, state Sen. Mac Schneider won UND’s campus precincts by a margin of 255 votes; but the 2020 candidate, Melissa Gjellstad, lost those two campus precincts (there are four precincts overall) by six votes. At the same time, turnout in those precincts has plunged, from 2,714 total votes for state senator to just 1,346.
Incumbent Sen. Curt Kreun beat Gjellstad by 240 votes districtwide.
It’s hard to know if higher student turnout would have changed the race — after all, Gjellstad lost the total vote in those campus precincts, and in 2016, Schneider did too. UND students are generally believed to run more conservative than the stereotypical college liberal, making them a less dependent blue base than other campuses in the country.
But those changing numbers raise questions about voter enthusiasm and ballot access. How much has the pandemic pushed down on student voting, with COVID surely making it more difficult to organize? How much are voting laws affecting student turnout?
Wood said the university has been a “ghost town” this autumn, and suspected that a big dent in local counts in the vote might be coming as students, at home elsewhere, cast ballots from wherever they happen to be learning remotely — and not as residents of District 42.
That appears to be borne out in the numbers. Turnout in the gubernatorial election and presidential election is up statewide, and UND documents show shifts in remote and in-person learning since last year.
In District 18, the race largely appears to have come down to blocs of voters that used to vote blue but simply don’t anymore. Two of the district’s biggest precincts are south of downtown and along Washington Street — supplying about half of the district’s total vote.
But those regions are tipping into Republican hands. A Democratic state Senate candidate won the precincts with 60% of the combined vote in 2012. But in 2016 and in 2020, a Democrat couldn’t crack 50% in either, raising questions about the party’s popularity with white, middle-income voters.
Wood points out that American politics are undergoing a realignment — one that’s often messy and at least an election cycle or two from becoming demographically clearer. Not only are partisan loyalties shifting in the era of President Trump, but generational changes are redrawing those demographics’ loyalties too, with younger voters more “ideologically aligned” and more willing to support ambitious government programs, even as they age.
State Rep. Corey Mock, a Democrat from the district, managed to hold on to his district by the thinnest of margins — barely more than a dozen votes. He pointed out that, especially at the local level, sometimes it’s the right candidate that makes the difference.
Whatever the case, GOP candidates seem just as surprised as anyone at the election results.
"It was kind of a similar feeling to 2016," said state Sen. Scott Meyer, a Republican reelected in District 18. "I don't think we expected, again, to take five of six (seats). That was a great feeling, and we almost got a sweep in 18.