While most of Philly has rejoiced at the Biden/Harris win, Democrats analyzing turnout in the city should be concerned by this stark fact: With democracy itself at stake, the number of Philadelphians who turned out to vote in last week’s presidential election has not budged much since 2016. This election was a do-or-die moment to flip Pennsylvania blue. While Philadelphians did their part, with local organizers stepping up to turn out voters, the big increases in Democratic turnout across the state came from counties outside Philadelphia. What gives?
A few theories about Philly’s lower-than-expected turnout are circulating already: the effect of universities sending students home, the difficulty of getting out the vote in a pandemic, the intricacies of Pennsylvania’s new vote-by-mail option. All are worth highlighting and understanding. But so are the exceptions to the citywide pattern, starting with the extraordinarily high Democratic turnout in my ward: the 21st (Roxborough and Manayunk). Lessons from our ward may present those of us who care about voter turnout with a model for how to help our neighbors participate in critical elections.
Here’s how we did it: We knew that in a pandemic, we needed to educate people on how to use Pennsylvania’s new vote-by-mail option. We started with a bunch of committee people and our friends and relatives. A fellow committee person designed a great postcard about voting by mail, and we all chipped in to print copies. In late August/early September, we hand-wrote and hand-delivered or mailed 7,000 of them to our neighbors who were registered Democrats and had not voted in the primary. Our primary source of data was VoterWeb, a voter database system similar to VAN/VoteBuilder, but tailored for Pennsylvania and geared for local committee people.
As data became available identifying which voters had not yet requested mail-in ballots for the general election, we focused more closely on those people, especially younger and/or newly registered voters, including those who didn’t necessarily have records of voting frequently. Another 7,000 letters, individually signed and hand-delivered or mailed to neighbors, went out in late September/early October. Almost 50 people helped to write, label, and deliver those 14,000 mailings.
Finally, we followed up with the people we reached out to, texting, calling, and knocking on doors. Neighbors thanked us, and several asked if they could help us spread the word. By the end of September, 10,412 of the Democrats in the 21st Ward had requested mail-in ballots. The momentum kept growing, and by Election Day, 13,681 Democrats in the ward had requested ballots with 92% of those ballots returned.
The results of our experiment are in. Working together, our ward and the Pennsylvania Democratic Party turned out 19,758 votes for Biden/Harris so far and counting. We increased turnout in the ward by over 3,000 votes and delivered 3,700 more votes to Biden/Harris than Clinton received in 2016, a 23% increase.
Overall turnout in the 21st Ward increased dramatically, and those additional votes went to the Democrats, bucking the general city trend. We were not the only ward that achieved an increase in votes for the Democratic candidates, but we had the largest increase in the number of votes. You can also see, at Philadelphiavotes.com, increases in some other neighborhoods where Reclaim, WFP, UNITE HERE, or networks of engaged, progressive Democratic committee people worked to increase turnout. Imagine if that strategy had been adopted by every ward in the city.
This was difficult, painstaking work. It took time and it took a lot of focus. I personally did it while my own father entered hospice care and then passed away. I kept working as hard as I could in order to do my part to turn the tide in our country. Our family hasn’t yet had a chance to hold a memorial service, but I know Dad would have approved. He would have been thrilled to see Pennsylvania turn blue and our neighborhood turn out overwhelmingly for Biden/Harris. If we truly believe these are life-and-death elections, we need to start treating them as such.
The lesson of Philadelphia’s turnout is not that people will not vote. It is that committed citizens have to help make it so.