As we enter October, month of surprises, one thing is becoming abundantly unsurprising: Philadelphia forgot it has elections coming up.
That was the unfortunate thing about the Democratic primary for city District Attorney in May. It became so contentious, so politically caustic, that it gave residents the impression that this was the final election to determine Philly’s next top prosecutor. Add to that the mosquito buzz of conventional wisdom media heads who were constantly footnoting that “… Democratic registrations in the city outnumber, blah, blah, blah” and that “… the winner of this primary is favored to win, blah, blah, blah,” and you’re fomenting a potentially disastrous recipe for an upset.
Skepticism shouldn’t be a rare commodity in this current climate. Yet, in Philly sets into its old, collective-shrugging ways. Local Democrats—continually underestimating the real depth of disenchantment with their cause due to scandal, corruption convictions and electoral losses that should’ve never happened—seem content with “we got this.” Most analysis on the subject is fairly convinced that, in the case of the DA race, Democratic nominee Larry Krasner will certainly win. And that’s based, simply, on the fact that Democrats registered typically outnumber Republicans.
Yet, last year, Philadelphia was at the top of 10 counties in Pennsylvania that saw the most gains in registered Republican voters. In fact, Philly saw a net jump of nearly 32,000 GOP voters … yes, in Philadelphia.
All this talk about “resistance” and shutting down City Council chambers and creating Antifa chaos in Center City and folks still insist on sleeping at the wheel when it comes to the one easy, free thing they can do to create change: vote. It’s actually easier than waiting on tech in the Apple store to examine that crack in your $600 iPhone. Still, an amazingly massive population of folks just refuse to vote.
On National Voter Registration Day last week, it was business as usual in such places as the Philadelphia City Commissioners office, which went into its usually spirited stride to register voters ahead of the October 10th pre-election deadline to do so. But, real talk, Philadelphia actually has enough people registered to vote, at least, according to the Commissioners’ own data: As of the 2017 primary, 1,034,160 people were registered to vote in the city of Philadelphia. That’s nearly 68 percent of the citywide population. During the 2016 general election, 1,102,564 Philadelphians were registered to vote, or 72 percent of the population.
All this talk about “resistance” and shutting down City Council chambers and creating Antifa chaos in Center City and folks still insist on sleeping at the wheel when it comes to the one easy, free thing they can do to create change: vote.
Yet, out of the over 1 million people registered to vote in the city of Philadelphia, only a total of 162,762 folks turned out to vote in the Democratic and Republican primaries for District Attorney in May—or, just under 16 percent of all those registered. Altogether, Philadelphia turnout for all races—including DA, State Supreme Court, Superior Court, Commonwealth Court, Court of Common Pleas, Municipal Court, City Controller and others—was about 18 percent, with folks bragging about how it jumped from 12 percent in the DA race in 2009. Commissioner Al Schmidt (bless his infographics) was short of orgasmic after seeing the massive 279 percent increase in Millennial turnout in May, along with the 152 percent Gen-X turnout.
But did that really matter in the grander scheme of things when total turnout is just a small fraction out of more than 1 million registered? And, really, how substantial a 6 percentage bump is that in a city of more than 1.5 million people?
Let’s admit, though, and agreeing with Pennsylvania Democratic Party Chair Marcel Groen: Primaries do suck the life out of the general elections. People think primaries are it. Once those are done, most folks think the elections are decided. That drain on expectations is rather debilitating and can cause fatigue by November. There are clear signs most Philadelphians believe the election was in May. They don’t know they’ve got to stick with it through November 7th.
There are real races to cover for a number of truly impactful public offices that determine your daily routine as a city resident—whether you get fatally shot in the back by a cop or whether you unjustly end up in a jail because of the color of your skin, for example. Or, whether you can sue the state and city for booting your car and making you lose your job because you live in a very black and poor section of the city.
We should explore why turnout is such a huge problem in a city that is famous for complaining about how bad shit is. A big part of the problem is that the city officials tasked with increasing voter registration don’t seem all that concerned about the more consequential voter turnout. In the final calculus, turnout counts—and registration, honestly, means jack shit when the folks registered either don’t know when an election is coming up, don’t understand how to exercise that registration, don’t know who’s running or just don’t care.
Many folks seem to register at happy events or during sudden in-your-face street corner encounters with a clipboard because they’re either in a good mood at the moment or are too nice to tell the clipboard holders to “f*** off”—anecdotally, a small percentage seem inclined to register because it’s a civic duty to do so. We’d need polling on that, but it would be a useful poll to conduct.
At some point, the City Commissioner’s office should be forced to measure its performance and justification for a budget based on turnout. Questions abound surrounding its nearly $11 million budget because many are left to wonder if it’s really all that effective. Maintaining or increasing that budget should be based on the ultimate metric: turnout. Right now, Commissioners are relying solely on somewhat pointless registration. Pointless in the sense that nearly three quarters of the city population is registered, but not doing a damn thing with that registration.
Questions abound surrounding the City Commissioner’s office nearly $11 million budget because many are left to wonder if it’s really all that effective. Maintaining or increasing that budget should be based on the ultimate metric: turnout.
Sometimes, you have to wonder: with these very high registration numbers in Philadelphia and the OCD way with which the Commissioners’ office tallies them, are people being unknowingly re-registered so the agency can simply hit a target that keeps both Mayor and City Council satisfied?
It’s funny, because when you arrive at the Commissioners’ website—the aptly named PhiladelphiaVotes.com—there is no visible data about turnout. Turnout, you would think, would be the first thing you’d see on that site. It should be the most obvious metric by which the Commissioners’ office or any agency conducting oversight would rate itself; if people aren’t using the registrations, what exactly is the point in the exercise of getting people registered to vote in the first place? The complete defiance of that logic by the City Commissioners’ office suggests something deliberate and malfeasant afoot.
In the meantime, with turnout numbers like that, don’t be so sure your favored reforming candidate will win if you’re simply sitting on your registration card. Make sure to vote on November 7th, fam.
Charles D. Ellison is Executive Producer and Host of “Reality Check,” which airs Monday–Thursday, 4-7 p.m. on WURD Radio (96.1FM/900AM). Check out The Citizen’s weekly segment on his show every Tuesday at 6 p.m. Ellison is also Principal of B|E Strategy, the Washington Correspondent for The Philadelphia Tribune and Contributing Politics Editor to TheRoot.com. Catch him if you can @ellisonreport on TwitterHeader Photo: Flickr