As a Democratic committeeperson — a hyperlocal elected official who liaises between my neighbors and the local Democratic Party — in South Philadelphia’s 2nd Ward, I celebrated the news of Joe Biden’s victory. This win, delivered by Philadelphians, was gratifying to the committeepeople, organizers, and activists who mobilized our neighbors to defeat Donald Trump.
But early data suggests that Philadelphia’s turnout was disappointingly flat from 2016, while turnout across the rest of the state skyrocketed. The Philadelphia Democratic City Committee — the executive leadership of the local Democratic Party, chaired by former Rep. Bob Brady — is enormously powerful in city elections and politics due to its endorsements and street money distribution. However, despite the city committee’s power, the local party was conspicuously absent from its most important role: grassroots organizing efforts to turn out the vote this November.
When I signed on to co-chair a new voter registration committee in my ward, our first action was to reach out to the city committee to ensure we didn’t duplicate efforts, and see whether we could support wards with lower registration and turnout numbers. Instead, we learned the party had no citywide plan for voter registration. We were left to develop our own strategy and find and coordinate with other organizations working on voter registration, like an effort out of Mount Airy’s 22nd Ward to develop a citywide network in the absence of such an effort from the local party.
Our ward had similar disappointments when we sought city committee support to be trained on the voter information system used for canvassing and phone banking. Ultimately, we ended up teaching ourselves to use the system as best we could and partnering with the state party on phone banking. We worked with two other wards to design and distribute our own get-out-the-vote posters with messaging about mail-in voting and voter registration. But our impact was limited. With a concerted citywide strategy led by the city committee, our volunteers and committeepeople could have contributed to efforts across Philadelphia to ensure that voters were registered, engaged, and educated long before Election Day.
With competitive races for U.S. Senate and Pennsylvania governor in 2022, there’s no time to waste in developing a proactive, multipronged strategy to build power and engage voters across the city. Over the next two years, and starting immediately, the city committee should take the following steps:
Engage and train committeepeople: Committeepeople, who represent each of Philadelphia’s over 1,500 divisions within 66 wards, are the footsoldiers of the party. If all 3,000-plus committeepeople were supported to deeply engage with their neighbors, voter turnout could skyrocket. The city committee should compile a database with contact information for all Philadelphia committeepeople, ensure all committeepeople are trained to use the voter database, and develop ongoing training for committeepeople on voter outreach, engagement, and Get Out The Vote.
Support low-turnout wards: Voter turnout is highly uneven across the city, and some wards have more internal capacity than others. The city committee should build capacity in wards with lower registration and turnout by recruiting highly engaged committeepeople and ward leaders — which may require thinking creatively about providing stipends and child care to ensure equitable access to these unpaid positions. At the same time, the flood of sign-ups to become poll workers this year demonstrates that there are many willing volunteers across the city to help with canvassing and phone banking as the party builds internal capacity. The party should develop a citywide volunteer list and mobilize volunteers to support voter registration and engagement efforts in low-turnout neighborhoods.
Register, register, register: Republican voter registration greatly outpaced Democratic registration this election cycle in Pennsylvania. The city committee should start a concerted voter registration effort now, focusing on youth, communities of color, immigrant communities, returning citizens, and other underrepresented constituencies. Many organizations are already working on this, but the local party should lead a citywide strategy.
Engage year-round: While we work to add new voters, we also have to do a better job of ensuring all registered voters vote every election. Efforts to mobilize voters on Election Day will be much more effective if voters have been hearing from the party year-round on issues they care about. The city committee should develop an ambitious communications infrastructure and strategy to engage voters between elections.
The city committee doesn’t need to start from scratch: there are already wards across the city leading in these areas. With support, they can scale their efforts citywide. Brady just needs to give his blessing — and help fund-raise — for a reimagined role for the local party. The role of the city committee shouldn’t just be to wield power but to build grassroots power among voters across our city.
The city committee needs to embrace a bold, ambitious strategy for 2021 and beyond. Otherwise, the party risks declining turnout, losses at the state and federal level, and decreasing relevance as other groups step up to do the grassroots organizing necessary to win elections. But within our 66 wards are the resources and vision needed to make Philadelphia the highest-turnout big city in the nation. We just need our party leadership to join us in making that vision a reality.