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From the Ash Center: Should we make people vote?

The Fix: What If Everyone Had to Vote?

Is mandatory voting — the law in Australia, Belgium, Brazil and other countries — an idea we should steal to boost election turnout? (Also: Democracy sausage!)

The Fix: What If Everyone Had to Vote?

Is mandatory voting — the law in Australia, Belgium, Brazil and other countries — an idea we should steal to boost election turnout? (Also: Democracy sausage!)

Of all the Election Day traditions around the democratic world, the best may hail from our down-under brethren in Australia: “The Democracy Sausage.”

Since at least 2012 — when the term first cropped up — Aussies who show up to their polling places, are also offered the chance to buy a specialty hot dog, often supplied by and used as a fundraiser for local charities. The Australian Financial Review described the tradition thusly:

Buying and eating a sizzled sausage at the polling booth and, especially for younger voters, tweeting a photo of same have become acts of communal participation in the Australian nation almost as significant as filling out the ballot paper and a lot more fun; a jokey accompaniment to the serious act of choosing the government, celebrating what we all share no matter which side wins.

In 2019, some 2,000 democracy sausages made their way to voters’ bellies — but in truth, that number could be much, much higher given that 90 percent of registered Australians turn out to vote in federal elections. That is not (to be honest) due to the availability of barbecue. It’s because in Australia, voting is mandatory.

Since 1924, eligible Aussies who fail to cast a ballot can be fined from $20 (Australian) for a federal race to $79 (Australian) for a state race. Other countries or areas within countries, also mandate their citizens vote, with similar results and sometimes even harsher consequences: In Belgium (90 percent turnout), for example, citizens risk not being able to get government jobs if they fail to vote, according to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA). Brazilians (80 percent), according to IDEA, may not get their salaries. In Peru (81 percent), failure to vote can mean losing access to public services.

But it’s not just the threat of punishment that brings people to the polls in Australia and these other places; it’s the fact that the law makes clear that voting is deemed a necessary part of living in the country, something people are supposed to do, and therefore, do.

In Philly, not so much

That, clearly, is not the case here.

Consider: In the most consequential election in nearly a decade, last month’s Democratic mayoral primary, just 32 percent of Philadelphia’s 775,000 eligible voters cast a ballot, either at the polls or by mail. That means that (most likely) future Mayor Cherelle Parker made it onto the general election ballot — and subsequently into City Hall — with just 89,000 votes in a city of 1.6 million people. Not only is that not a mandate, it’s barely even a nod of approval.

“I’m not sure what’s scarier — taking away the right not to vote, or that so many of my colleagues in the state Senate think this is a good idea.” — Washington State Sen. Jeff Wilson.

It’s unlikely that Philadelphians were unaware of the election, given the huge number of candidate forums, record money spent on TV ad buys, and “Vote for” signs posted along every major byway, in each and every neighborhood. And it isn’t as though we had no good candidates; we had many. There are several possible reasons for the low voter interest — most disheartening among them the probability that many Philadelphians, especially Black and Brown citizens, are so disillusioned with city government they see no reason to vote.

“Everybody shows up every two years during federal elections to do all this voter outreach in barbershops and community centers and neighborhoods,” says Lauren Cristella, president and CEO of Committee of Seventy. “We tell them it’s so important; they get a pat on the back for saving democracy. And then nothing changes — or, their neighborhoods get worse. That pattern breeds apathy.”

Compulsory voting without significant action from our elected leaders wouldn’t change that feeling. On the other hand: If everyone had to vote, then politicians would feel beholden to all their constituents, because all their constituents would be voters. They would need to campaign to more and varied citizens, rather than just galvanizing their own supporters (while hoping their opponents stay home).

It could also have a profound and lasting effect on the execution of our democracy. If every citizen is expected to vote, then voting would have to be accessible and available to every citizen, putting an end to voting restrictions that have proliferated around the country since 2020.

Carrots and sticks

Those are among the reasons why the idea has gained support from politicians, scholars and elections officials, including former Massachusetts gubernatorial candidate and Harvard University ethicist Danielle Allen and former Connecticut Secretary of State Miles Rapoport, now a senior fellow at Harvard’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation. In 2022, Rapoport and Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne published 100% Democracy: The Case for Universal Voting. In a Post column last spring, they explained why:

Universal voting takes seriously the Declaration of Independence’s insistence that government is legitimate only when it is based on the “consent of the governed.” The Founders did not say “some of the governed” (even 66.8 percent). Including everyone in our system of government would live up to the promise made at the birth of our republic. Universal voting would tear down barriers and elevate our civic obligations. It could undergird other reforms and make clear that our country’s commitment to democracy is unapologetic, confident and complete.

Some American states have dabbled with the idea of compulsory voting. According to IDEA, Georgia, Virginia, North Dakota and Massachusetts have all had provisions for mandatory voting dating back more than 100 years, though they are not enforced. And earlier this year, a group of Democrats in the Washington State legislature introduced a bill mandating what they called universal civic duty voting. “People must register for the selective service, serve on a jury, and pay taxes; they should also be required to cast a ballot,” the bill reads.

That stalled in committee, but not before engendering the criticism that comes up in any discussion of mandatory voting: That it is un-American. “I’m not sure what’s scarier — taking away the right not to vote, or that so many of my colleagues in the state Senate think this is a good idea,” Washington State Sen. Jeff Wilson wrote in a statement. “I’m not sure they get it. In this country we cherish the right to vote, but we also cherish the right to say ‘no, thank you.’”

“There was a time when the idea of allowing women or African Americans to vote was seen as outlandish. I’m convinced universal civic duty voting can have the same trajectory from radical idea to accepted norm.” — Miles Rapaport

Cristella at Committee of Seventy worries that mandatory voting comes with “too many downsides,” including the risk that forcing people to vote will just mean more uninformed or disgruntled voters casting a ballot, which might result in worse electoral outcomes. (Of course, it should be noted that there are already legions of uninformed voters around the country.) Like Wilson, she says that many Americans choose not to vote out of protest, not just out of apathy — a statement unto itself that elected officials should seek to understand.

She notes, too, that instituting mandatory voting in Pennsylvania, not to mention the U.S., would be a long shot at a time when other reforms that are gaining bipartisan support in Harrisburg should be the focus. Most promising is a bill introduced in May by State Senators Anthony Williams and Doug Mastriano, among others, to end the state’s closed primaries that prevent unaffiliated and Independent voters from casting a ballot.

“I prefer carrots to sticks,” says Cristella, “like making it easier to vote; making it part of the culture; making it fun and bringing joy to it.”

It’s true that it’s not just compulsory voting that gets Australians to cast a ballot. They also hold elections on Saturdays, when more people are off from work; they send teams to prisons and hospitals to reach citizens who can’t get to the polls; they have mail-in voting and automatic voter registration. They have barbecues because, as Cristella says, democracy should be fun. Those who want to protest with their non-vote can write gibberish on their ballots or do what is called a “donkey vote,” ranking candidates — yes, they also have ranked-choice voting! — in the order in which they appear.

These are all doable in Pennsylvania; we already do some of these here in Philly, at least in those every two year federal elections, when we have dance parties and pizza deliveries to make the day into a celebration. Rapaport makes the case that we have also made much harder and radical changes to voting in the last 250 years (including implementing secret ballots after Australia did it first).

“It’s not going to happen overnight, but no significant reforms to voting in the history of the country have, either,” Rapaport said in an Ash Center article in 2020. “There was a time when the idea of allowing women or African Americans to vote was seen as outlandish. The groundwork for those reforms took years to lay. I’m convinced universal civic duty voting can have the same trajectory from radical idea to accepted norm.”

The Fix is made possible through a grant from the Thomas Skelton Harrison Foundation. The Harrison Foundation does not exercise editorial control or approval over the content of any material published by The Philadelphia Citizen.



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