About 240,000 Philadelphians — or less than a quarter of those registered — voted in Tuesday’s municipal primary election, but that was more than in the 2017 municipal elections or last year’s congressional and gubernatorial primary election.
That meant about 23 percent of the city’s 1,051,213 voters participated in the election.
Voter turnout is considered important in several ways, including as one measure of political engagement and enthusiasm. Political campaigns often target voters based in part on their voting history, and turnout patterns can help shape strategy for future campaigns.
Turnout also matters because politicians focus on voters more than on constituents writ large — officials know which demographic groups, which neighborhoods, and which communities vote, and that affects policy.
Older people are more likely to vote than their younger counterparts. The wealthier are more likely to vote than the poorer, and the more educated tend to show up at polls more often than the lesser educated.
That’s generally true across elections. In addition:
Harder to know in the moment is how the broader political and larger context may shape turnout. For example, President Donald Trump’s election sparked high levels of activism on the left, and last year’s midterm elections in particular showed a surge in Democratic turnout. But the 2017 municipal elections saw low turnout and the 2018 primary was even lower.
Analyzing turnout is complicated.
At its simplest, turnout is just a matter of taking the number of people who voted out of the total number of registered voters, answering the question of what percentage of eligible voters actually cast ballots. But it is imperfect.
The number of registered voters is almost never a precise reflection of the actual electorate. Voters are constantly moving without changing their registrations. For example, consider college students who come to Philly, register, and then leave after graduating — they’ll still be on the voter rolls for several years after graduating, though they are no longer here to vote.
With one cleaning of the voter rolls to remove inactive voters — and others, such as those who have died — the number of registrations suddenly changes. The resulting turnout percentage would be different.
Some political scientists avoid the registration problem by measuring turnout as a percentage of people who would be eligible to vote regardless of whether they are registered.
Pennsylvania also has a “closed primary” system in which only registered Democrats and Republicans can vote only for their own parties’ candidates. Often, all voters are eligible to participate by voting on ballot questions, as was the case Tuesday, but third-party and independent voters may not be interested in voting just on those questions.
Exact turnout numbers are also not available immediately after an election. Right now, the vote count is still unofficial, with some votes, including absentee ballots, to be counted. Those will ultimately add a few thousand votes to the overall count.
Turnout varies a lot across the city. It was particularly low in the 7th District, where turnout is always low, and highest in the Northwest.
Even in districts with competitive council races, turnout did not appear to spike upward, compared with the rest of the city. The 7th District — with turnout of less than 15 percent — had one of the city’s most competitive races, one in which incumbent Maria Quiñones-Sánchez won reelection with a current lead of fewer than 500 votes.
In the 3d District, where longtime Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell was unseated by Jamie Gauthier, turnout was only slightly higher than the city average.