If history’s a guide, and Philadelphia’s a great place for history (and guides), Tuesday’s primary election will draw about one-quarter or so of the electorate.
That means roughly 243,000 voters out of 936,000 registered Democrats and Republicans will have a say in who runs a city of 1.5 million-plus people.
And 127,000 more third-party and independent voters have no voice since they can’t vote in primaries, which are the only elections that matter in a one-party city.
Not sure this is how representative democracy is supposed to work. Especially in the “cradle of democracy.”
Yet, it’s understandable in multiple ways.
Municipal election-year turnout is dropping everywhere. New York’s 2017 mayor’s race drew 25 percent. Los Angeles turnout plummeted to the point that City Council used lottery-style cash prizes to bring out voters. A 35-year-old security guard won $25,000 for voting in a 2015 school board runoff election.
Hey, maybe a Philly lottery – Eagles luxury suites, permanent neighborhood parking spaces, Stephen Starr restaurant gift cards, lifetime SEPTA passes, cash – can boost city numbers.
Philly turnout in the last mayoral primary, 2015, which included an open mayoral seat, was 27 percent. In the ’80s and ’90s, city turnout routinely topped 60 percent. And it hit 77 percent in 1971 – Frank Rizzo’s first run for mayor.
Why such a big change?
Lots of reasons. But count among them a constant drip of public corruption, the ineffectiveness of elected leaders, uninspiring candidates, a missing-in-action GOP, and state election laws among America’s oldest and most undemocratic.
(More on the latter in a bit.)
Plus, there’s the overall dismal state of politics and government, which makes many folks figure, heck, what’s the use, things don’t get better, I’m stayin’ home.
Philly’s got the nation’s highest wage tax and the highest big-city poverty rate. Doesn’t seem to matter who’s in charge. More discouraging than engaging.
And if you’re thinking, yeah, well, Democrats are in charge so it’s Democrats’ fault, I’d just note that Pennsylvania – recently ranked by U.S. News & World Report the 41st worst state in the nation – is run by a Republican legislature, and has the highest gas tax in America and just about the worst roads and bridges.
But back to Tuesday’s election.
The ballot’s huge and complicated. All those Council candidates. All those judicial candidates. (Some drawing careers out of a coffee can.) And there are candidates for offices that shouldn’t even be elective.
Sheriff? What are we, Tombstone? City Commissioners? What’s Council for? Register of Wills? Come on.
But here’s the thing. You really should vote.
Local government is the government that impacts daily lives directly.
It’s right outside your door. It cleans your streets (or doesn’t). Its decisions affect the quality of services your tax dollars pay for: public education, mass transit, police and fire protection, housing policy, job training, social services, literally anything and everything aimed at making the city safe and civil.
So, vote. Pols watch turnout. When it stays low, their same-old ways are green-lighted. When it goes up, they pay attention.
And if they pay attention, change can happen. New blood. Smarter decisions. Better democracy.
Pennsylvania can update election laws. Let independents vote in primaries, allow early voting, same-day registration voting, mail-in voting, no-excuse absentee voting. All the things that tell citizens your government isn’t closed and self-serving. It wants to hear your voice.
And even if you’re fed up and giving up, vote anyway. If only because our current election process – ranked 45th among states – is telling you why bother.