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Ferrick: Voter apathy and a sobering look at Philadelphia's electorate

It's always a topic whenever earnest, civic-minded people gather. It goes under the title of voter apathy and it usually centers around the question: How can we get people off their butts and engaged in the electoral process?

It's always a topic whenever earnest, civic-minded people gather. It goes under the title of voter apathy and it usually centers around the question: How can we get people off their butts and engaged in the electoral process?

A glimpse at the numbers helps define the problem:

There are about 1.2 million adults over the age of 18 living in Philadelphia. Of that number, about 38 percent (455,000) haven't registered to vote or, if registered, they haven't shown up at the polls in five years or more. I call these TOOs -- as in Total Opt Outs.

The number of TOOs varies by age, with the largest cluster among younger Philadelphians. For instance, there are 193,000 Philadelphians between the ages of 18 and 24, but only one in three (59,000) have registered or actually voted.

Remove these TOOs from the count and you are left with about 736,000 "active voters."

I put quotes around that phrase because many of them aren't very active at all. Thirty percent have only voted once in the last 10 elections, another 18 percent have shown up only twice. Let's call them the BAs -- for Barely Active.

So, now we can slice our total again: We start with 1.2 million adults, minus 455,000 TOOs. minus 342,000 BAs.

Down and down the numbers go until we are left with a pool of 350,000 voters who participate, at least fairly regularly, in elections.

If the past is any guide, about 270,000 Democrats will vote in the May 19 primary, And if someone emerges with about 100,000 votes, they will win the party nomination and de facto City Hall office.

To boil it down to a final number: Our next mayor will be chosen by less than 10 percent of all adults in the city.

Is this a democracy or a cult?

There are steps that could be taken to increase voter participation. Tradition has it that elections are a one-day sale, always held on the Tuesday with hours from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Suppose we made it easier for people to mail in ballots? Or we held the election on a weekend? Or kept the polls open for a five-day period instead of one?

(I can hear the screams already. Yes, it would cost more and be a hassle for election workers, who are already poorly paid for the work they do.)

These changes would take news laws, which is a nonstarter. Those in power rarely have the incentive to broaden participation. They feel comfortable with the present system because it clearly works for them. If anything, the direction has been to add hurdles to participation, as in the recent spate of Voter ID laws, pushed by Republicans and clearly aimed at low-income, minority (and therefore mostly Democratic) voters.

There's also the possibility of adding incentives to vote -- like we do to get people to recycle: perhaps a points system that over time could mean a free lunch or a $10-off coupon at local stores. In the 19th century, in Philadelphia and elsewhere, ward leaders and their minions would, um, incentivize voters by setting up shop in a saloon on Election Day and lining up a row of shot glasses, turned down. When a man (voters were all male in those days) showed up with proof that he voted, the ward guy would turn the glass face up and have the bartender pour a shot.

As you can see, the incentive path causes problems: There's a fine line between buying voting and buying votes, and most don't want to go near it.

These are idle thoughts because they offer cures without examining the cause of non-engagement.

As a bona fide member of the political class, I tend to see the city as a wheel and government as its hub. That may be an outmoded model. This city has many different hubs that sometimes interact with government and often do not. Creative class Philadelphians and entrepreneurial Philadelphians makes little use of government, except for basic services -- collect the trash, patrol the streets, plow when it snows. Other than that, city government is more of a nuisance than a help.

It also helps to turn the question on its head. Should the question be: Why are so many people apathetic? Or should it be: What possible reason do they have to be engaged?

We can't point to the vibrancy of our political culture. This is a city where one party has ruled for more than 60 years. The political system isn't so much corrupt as it is ossified.

There are no new ideas, no cadre of reformers, no group like The Warriors, the reform-minded young Democrats who remade the city after returning from World War II.

On a broader level, people looking out at the political landscape see a vicious circle of partisanship, paralysis and ineffectualness. This is a mean time.

If you want people to vote, you have to give them a reason beyond their narrow self interests and prejudices. We may need to change the way we govern first before we earn board participation, but that change is unlikely to come unless there is participation.

That's what we call a conundrum.

Can someone give me a shot glass? I think I need a drink.

The numbers used in this posting are from a Next Mayor analysis of a detailed voter database provided by the City Commissioners, who oversee elections.