Friday, November 8, 2013

Philly Voter Turn-out: How low can it go?

Election Day was a depressing affair. My Mt. Airy division had a turn-out 3 times that of the city wide average of 11.3 %, but that’s not much of a consolation.

According to an article posted in “only 11.3 percent of the city’s 1.1 million registered voters bothered to show at the polls, which, if it stands, would make it the lowest turnout in at least 20 years, if not the least in modern city history, for a general election.” The trend over the last 20 years has been steady decline—a drop of 14.7% in off-year general elections since the 26% turn-out in 1992.

The low turn-out is in part explained by a lack of competitive races. In most races for Philadelphia municipal offices, the Democratic lead in registered voters is so great that the result is all but decided even before any votes are counted. But the race for Judge of the Pennsylvania Superior Court was a close contest decided by a few percentage points.

The Superior Court makes decisions affecting all Pennsylvanians. It hears appeals from Courts of Common Pleas, including their Family Divisions, in both civil and criminal cases. The Superior Court interprets unclear legislation; unless overturned on further appeal, its interpretation remains final. This was an important race, but you would never know it from the almost non-existent media coverage.

Most voters in my division told me they were unaware of the Superior Court race until they received the letter my committeeperson partner and I delivered to all the households in our division. A few people told me they did not even know there was an election until they received our letter! The lack of media coverage was clearly a factor. Our daily newspapers continue to shrink both in their coverage and in their audience, and candidates in non-competitive races don’t buy TV ads.

Also, it appears that in many neighborhoods around the city, committeepeople were making little effort to inform voters and get out the vote. Apparently the Democratic Party chair didn’t think this election was worth the effort. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, :

Rep. Bob Brady (D., Pa.) had warned the city's political foot soldiers Election Day would be slow, quiet.

"I told my committee people, 'Not much you can do about this one,' " he said Wednesday. " 'But be prepared. It won't be like this next year.' "…

Brady, longtime chair of the city's Democratic Party, noted that Democrat John McVay Jr. narrowly lost a statewide run for Superior Court after barely setting foot in the city --and getting little support from it.

"He should have paid a little more attention to the city of Philadelphia," Brady said. "No one knew who he was, including me."

Isn’t the Party Chair’s job to educate voters about what’s at stake in the election and motivate committeepeople to get out the vote—not to complain about the candidates' failure to get to know him??

The drop in turn-out is getting really scary. I've heard the argument that we could not possibly go any lower in off year elections than 10-11% because we have the old, reliable super-voters who come out in every election, no matter what. But voting is a very age-graded affair—especially so in off-year elections—and those old reliable super voters are getting older. When our age cohort fades away, we may very well be down to single digits.

So what we do? There is no one solution for a problem of this magnitude--making voting easier (e.g. online registration, early voting) would no doubt help. Encouraging more civic minded young people to run for committee person and re-invigorate a moribund Party would certainly help. (Elections for committeepeople will occur in the 2014 primary.)

The door-to-door work we do in my division and throughout the 9th ward explains (at least to some extent) our significantly higher turn-out than 11.3% city-wide average. But the Democratic party is going to have to become more “democratic” if it’s going to attract the civic-minded young people it so desperately needs.

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