The 1971 Philadelphia mayor’s race may have been the last great moment in this city’s electoral history. That was the race that brought to City Hall the most-loved-most-hated Philly politician of the last century, Frank Rizzo. It found African Americans throwing their support to a Republican, Thacher Longstreth. And it saw the most tremendous voter turnout of the last 56 years. That November day, 77 percent of eligible Philadelphians made a choice. They went to the polls; they punched a ticket; they voted. For or against Rizzo, they took a stand in the most basic, most powerful way this country’s founders intended when they wrangled a constitution at 5th and Chestnut 200 years earlier.
Frank Rizzo was not, by any means, mayor for every Philadelphian. But you know what? Neither is Michael Nutter, who moved into City Hall in 2007 after just 29 percent of eligible voters made a choice. Or even John Street, whose races against Sam Katz were the most exciting in recent memory—and brought a whopping 45 and 50 percent of voters respectively to the polls. This year, just 27 percent voted in the May 2015 primary to decide who would likely lead Philly for the next eight years—and that was considered a good turnout. (Oh, we of such low expectations.)
One voter. Randomly selected. Taking home $10,000, courtesy of the Pamela and Ajay Raju Foundation.
It’s not just Philly, of course. This is a national epidemic: Turnout in the last federal election in 2014 was just 36 percent—the lowest since World War II (when thousands of voters were, you know, super busy). But it is especially galling here, where this country started and where every single one of us knows a myriad of problems that need solving—and that are not being solved by the same old decision-makers on Broad Street. Philadelphia suffers from chronic civic participation malaise. We could, as usual, stand back and wring our hands. Instead, we at The Citizen have decided it’s time for action.
That’s why we launched the 2015 Philadelphia Municipal Election Voting Lottery, to give $10,000 to one Philadelphia voter who casts a ballot on November 3. Let me repeat that: One voter. Randomly selected. Taking home $10,000, courtesy of the Pamela and Ajay Raju Foundation. Before you ask: Yes, this is legal. And no: We are not endorsing anyone, or making any money off of this ourselves. We’re doing this for one reason alone: To bring more people to the polls, in any way that gets them there. (See here for rules and regulations.)
We’ll even make it easier for you make a decision: Now that you know what’s at stake, make sure you take 10 minutes and familiarize yourself with all the candidates in the race. You can learn about them all here, and even make your own ballot.
A similar program, in a small Los Angeles school district election in May, saw remarkable results: Voter turnout increased from 46 percent to 80 percent among those who knew about the possibility of winning $25,000 through Votería. Can you imagine if twice as many people here came out to the polls in November as showed up in May? That would still be only 54 percent of registered voters. But even that would make an impact. And who knows? Maybe it would be just the spark they need to come back again and again.
Sure, it reeks a little. It is sorta icky. As The Los Angeles Times said about Votería, “This gimmick demeans the value of voting. And it’s the most superficial pseudo-solution to a very real problem in Los Angeles, which is the pervasive civic malaise that prevents so many eligible voters from feeling truly engaged.”
Philadelphia suffers from chronic civic participation malaise. We could, as usual, stand back and wring our hands. Instead, we at The Citizen have decided it’s time for action.
But you know what? Desperate times call for desperate measures. This is not the only idea out there. We’ve written about Next Stop Democracy, which has hired artists to set up signs around town pointing people to their voting booths. Young Involved Philadelphians, along with our lottery co-sponsor IAM, are running a Voter Education Week to get out the vote. Nationally, there is talk of mandatory voting, automatic registration, same day registration, open primaries, online registration (which Gov. Wolf launched in PA in August). Hopefully, some of those ideas will gain enough traction in the years ahead to reverse the trend of declining voter turnouts.
In the meantime, we can only say this: Go vote. Because it’s the right thing to do as a citizen. And because you might just come out $10,000 richer.
Header photo: “Voting United States” by Tom Arthur from Orange, CA. Uploaded by Petronas. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.